What causes depression, and how can it be healed?

Question: What does the Course have to say about depression?

Short answer: Speaking in general terms, depression is caused by our identification with the ego, which brings with it a sense of deprivation — the belief that due to forces beyond our control, we lack and cannot acquire the things we need to be happy. Depression is healed by choosing to renounce the ego and listen to the Holy Spirit, Who reminds us that our sense of deprivation comes only from our own decision to deprive ourselves, and restores to our awareness the fact that we already have everything we need to be happy.


Note: Before going any further, I want to make clear that this Q & A should not be used as a substitute for getting treatment for depression. While getting "the blues" now and then is pretty normal for most of us, clinical depression is a serious illness that can have devastating consequences. Anyone whose depression is severe or lasts more than a few days should seek professional help. My intent with this Q & A is simply to draw out what the Course says about depression, so that we might be better able to work with depression from a Course perspective.

Depression is caused by our identification with the ego, which brings with it a sense of deprivation — the belief that due to forces beyond our control, we lack and cannot acquire the things we need to be happy.

The ego is the belief that we are separate from God and from our brothers, and "depression is an inevitable consequence of separation" (W-pI.41.1:2). Why? Because separation brings with it a sense of deprivation, and the belief that we are deprived is the root idea behind all forms of depression. This is the basic gist of what is perhaps the Course's most succinct definition of depression: "Depression comes from a sense of being deprived of something you want and do not have" (T-4.IV.3:2). To be deprived means not just to be without something, but to have something taken or withheld from us by someone or something beyond our control. (Webster's Dictionary says that to "deprive" is "to remove or withhold something from the enjoyment or possession of.") Depression, then, comes from the belief that we are lacking something essential to our happiness, and that we have no real hope of acquiring that thing because we don't have the power to do so. We become depressed when the perceived source of our happiness seems forever beyond our reach. Depression is the emotional expression of the thought, "I want it, but I cannot have it."

It is not difficult to see how identification with the ego leads to a sense of deprivation and depression. If we believe that we are limited, separate beings, we will inevitably feel deprived. In Heaven, we had everything we needed to be happy, but now it seems as if we have lost it all. We have seemingly fallen from limitless beings basking in the boundless joy of Heaven to needy little creatures who must fight a hostile world for every scrap of happiness we can find. What's more, it seems that there is absolutely no escape from our deprived condition; no matter how hard we search for happiness in this world and how much we seem to find it, in the end we are all doomed to suffer the ultimate deprivation: death. In such a condition, what could we be but depressed?

The sense of deprivation at the heart of our separate existence takes many forms in this world, and so depression takes many forms as well. The following are some of the specific causes of depression that the Course mentions. (We will take a look at the specific remedies the Course offers further below.):

We become depressed because we are lonely, cut off from our Father, our brothers, and our true home.

Loneliness is one of the most profound deprivations we can experience, and one of the classic causes of depression. It can, of course, take the form of feeling cut off from family and friends in this world. But this form, sad as it is in itself, is an expression of a much sadder and deeper loneliness, an existential loneliness of cosmic proportions: By choosing to be separate, we have cut ourselves off from our Heavenly family, our one true home.

The Course speaks poignantly of this in a number of places. Lesson 182 of the Workbook tells us of the deep, unacknowledged sadness we feel as a result of our seeming exile in this world; the Christ in us is homesick, and yearns "to breathe again the holy air that fills His Father's house" (W-pI.182.5:4). The Text section "The Forgotten Song" paints a metaphorical picture of that home: a loving home shared with beloved brothers, in which is heard a Heavenly song so beautiful that it "would make you weep if you remembered how dear it was to you" (T-21.I.7:2). As much as we try to cover up our sadness by distracting ourselves with the "pleasures" of the world, something in us weeps at the terrible aloneness of our separate condition, and yearns to rejoin our Father and our brothers. As hard as we try to make a home for ourselves in this world, something in us just knows that we don't really belong here. Deep inside, we feel homeless, and so it is no surprise that we feel depressed.

We become depressed because we think we have lost our innocence, and can never get it back.

Believing that we have been deprived of our innocence is deeply depressing, for what hope of happiness is there if our very nature is black to the core? Yet identification with the ego must lead to guilt, because the belief that we have separated from God and our brothers leads inevitably to the belief that we are sinners: violators of God's law who have forever corrupted our pristine original nature. (On earth, this can take the form of feeling guilty for the various "sins" we believe we have committed, the various ways in which we have hurt other people and ourselves.)

Who amongst us does not yearn for lost innocence? I think this yearning runs very deep in the human psyche, and expresses itself in a number of ways. It is expressed in our desire to recapture what we see as the innocence of childhood. It is expressed in the perennial human belief that there was once a Golden Age in human history, a Paradise Lost which can perhaps be restored if only we return to the old ways. While the Course would not have us search for innocence in childhood or in a mythical Golden Age, it very much acknowledges the longing for innocence that motivates this search. The Course states plainly that innocence is our heart's desire: "It is for this you yearn" (W-pI.182.12:2). The belief that we have lost our innocence is behind every tear we have ever shed, for "who could weep but for his innocence?" (P-2.IV.1:7).

We become depressed because we are trying to accomplish the impossible.

As much as we lament our seeming separation from God and our brothers, the fact is that we lack the ability to really do this. At first glance, this seems like good news, and ultimately it is. However, as long as we identify with the ego, this very lack is, ironically, yet another source of depression. The ego offers us a curriculum of separation, but since we cannot really be separate, the ego's curriculum cannot really be learned. We are thus trying to accomplish the impossible, and "being faced with an impossible learning situation is the most depressing thing in the world" (T-8.VII.8:3). We are indissolubly joined beings diligently trying to learn how to be separate, which is kind of like a man diligently trying to learn how to get pregnant. As long as we persist in this goal, we will feel deprived, because we are placing our hope of happiness in something we can never have. We will be frustrated and depressed, because we've set ourselves up for failure.

We become depressed because we are confused, divided between conflicting goals.

This point follows from the previous one. Precisely because we lack the ability to really separate from God and our brothers, a part of our minds is forever on the side of union with God and our brothers. Thus whenever we identify with the ego, we inevitably set up a conflict between the part of our minds that is for God, and the illusory part that is against Him. In everyday life, we can see this conflict at work in the constant tension between our desire for intimacy (joining with others) and our desire for autonomy (being separate from others). Our minds are split between two mutually irreconcilable goals, and in such a state, peace of mind is impossible:

No one can serve contradicting goals and serve them well. Nor can he function without deep distress and great depression. (W-pII.257.1:2-3)

We want separation and union at the same time, and we can't possibly have both. To have one is to be deprived of the other. We are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. How could we possibly find happiness in such a state?

We become depressed because we feel inadequate and powerless, unable to solve our problems and find happiness in this world.

Just as we lack the ability to truly separate from God, so we lack the ability to solve the myriad problems that seem to confront us in the world. This is a very serious lack in our eyes, for once we identify with the ego, we place ourselves in a position where we seemingly must wrest our happiness from the outside world. Happiness, we believe, lies in solving the various problems the world confronts us with, and acquiring the things we need to support our separate existence. Yet the longer we try to win at this game, the more it begins to dawn on us that we are doomed to failure:

No one could solve all the problems the world appears to hold. They seem to be on so many levels, in such varying forms and with such varied content, that they confront you with an impossible situation. Dismay and depression are inevitable as you regard them. (W-pI.79.5:1-3)

Who amongst us hasn't felt this dismay in the face of the tangled web of problems we have to deal with in this crazy world? We hope to solve them so that we can find some measure of peace and happiness, but once again, we are trying to accomplish the impossible. This is such a depressing realization that we work very hard to convince ourselves otherwise. We try to "empower" ourselves through acquiring various tools and abilities that we think will make us better able to "win the game of life." We grasp for one external thing after another — things that the Course calls "idols" — hoping that even though the last ten thousand things we tried didn't work, this new thing just might do the trick. Yet again and again, our idols disappoint us; as the Course says, we "weep each time an idol falls" (T-29.VII.1:2). One more idol has not given the happiness it promised, and so we run off to seek another.

Eventually, we begin to realize that nothing in this world can really provide the happiness we seek. There really is no way to win this game. And while this realization can actually be a valuable turning point on our road to God (see T-31.IV.4-6), the Course also acknowledges that seeing the hopelessness of the world can throw us into a very dark pit of depression. It goes so far as to say that "men have died on seeing this" (T-31.IV.3:4) — a reference, I believe, to suicide. Convinced of the futility of finding happiness in the world, some have chosen the ultimate deprivation of death — a cruel irony, since the Course tells us that death itself "is the one idea which underlies all feelings that are not supremely happy" (W-pI.167.2:4).

We become depressed because we think we have no rewarding function to fulfill.

One of the major causes of depression is a lack of meaning in our lives. I believe that all of us have a deep yearning to make a difference, to be of service, to dedicate our lives to a goal that is larger and more meaningful than mere satisfaction of personal needs. In short, we need a meaningful function. Without such a function, all we have is the depressing game of idol chasing that was discussed in the last point.

The Course is clear that we cannot be happy unless we have a meaningful function to fulfill. In Heaven, our function is creation, and when we chose to identify with the ego, we rejected that function, which lead to depression: "You are sad because you are not fulfilling your function as co-creator with God" (T-7.VI.13:1). Now that we're (seemingly) on earth, it seems that we don't have any function at all besides looking out for number one, which just makes us feel more sad, more useless, and more alone: "The lonely ones are those who see no function in the world for them to fill; no place where they are needed, and no aim which only they can perfectly fulfill" (T-25.VI.3:6). In the end, self-serving is just plain unsatisfying; we need something more if we are to find real happiness on earth.

If self-serving is so unsatisfying, then what function would bring us happiness on earth? Most Course students can probably guess the answer, I am sure, but I will save that for my next point. It is time, at last, to end our gloomy tour through the causes of depression, and turn to the Course's means of healing the sense of deprivation at the heart of all our sadness.

Depression is healed by choosing to renounce the ego and listen to the Holy Spirit, Who reminds us that our sense of deprivation comes only from our own decision to deprive ourselves, and restores to our awareness the fact that we already have everything we need to be happy.

If choosing to identify with the ego makes us feel deprived and thus depressed, then the obvious remedy for depression is to stop identifying with the ego. But of course, we can't do this without help, and so we must turn to the Holy Spirit, Who speaks for our true Self. And one of the most crucial lessons the Holy Spirit teaches us is the true nature of our seeming deprivation. As I mentioned above, we believe that to be deprived means to have something taken or withheld from us by someone or something beyond our control. But the Holy Spirit teaches that this is pure illusion. The truth is that, however much it may appear otherwise, we've been in control all along:

Only you can deprive yourself of anything. Do not oppose this realization, for it is truly the beginning of the dawn of light. Remember also that the denial of this simple fact takes many forms, and these you must learn to recognize and to oppose steadfastly, without exception." (T-11.IV.4:1-3)

This is a radical teaching, one that completely pulls the rug out from under our sense of deprivation. Obviously, this is not a realization that we are going to get overnight, but equally obviously, it is one that the Course really wants us to practice diligently. The author of the Course clearly wants us to learn that we ourselves have made our seeming deprivation, and so we ourselves have "made the god of depression" (T-10.V.4:2). As difficult as this may be to swallow at first, it is ultimately wonderful news, for if we made our deprivation and depression, then we have the power to unmake it — or, better, to allow the Holy Spirit to unmake it.

This is exactly what the Holy Spirit does, whenever we turn to Him for help. And just as our depression takes many specific forms, so the Holy Spirit has a specific remedy for each of those forms. Whatever form our depression takes, He heals it by giving us the thing we seem to be deprived of, thus proving that we are not really deprived of it. Let's see how He does this with each of the specific causes of depression discussed above:

He heals our loneliness for our Heavenly family by reminding us that we are not really living in exile: "You travel but in dreams, while safe at home" (T-13.VII.17:7). Through the holy instant, He offers us the opportunity to temporarily step away from our seeming exile, to "be still an instant and go home" (W-pI.182.Heading). Through teaching us forgiveness, He teaches us that we are forever one with our Father and all our brothers: "Forgiveness lets me know that minds are joined" (W-pII.336.Heading).

He heals our sense of lost innocence by offering us the gift of forgiveness, which proves that no sin has ever occurred (all of our seeming "sins" are merely mistakes), and thus demonstrates that "you have not lost your innocence" (W-pI.182.12:1-2).

He heals our frustration at trying to achieve an impossible goal by giving us an achievable goal. He does this by replacing the ego's curriculum of separation with His "curriculum of joy" (T-8.VII.8:5): a curriculum of forgiveness and miracles, with the goal of learning who we really are. Not only can we attain the goal of His curriculum — attaining it is an absolute certainty.

He heals the confusion caused by our conflicting goals by giving us a unified goal, reminding us that "joy is unified purpose" (T-8.VII.15:1). He unifies our minds by overlooking the ego's goals and replacing them with His goal: forgiveness, healing, salvation, and the peace of God.

He heals our sense of powerlessness in dealing with the problems of the world by giving us the one thing that will solve all of them: the miracle, which releases us from our "false sense of isolation, deprivation, and lack" (T-1.I.42:1). He gives us His perfect guidance, which tells us exactly what to think, say, and do in every situation that confronts us. "Under His guidance [we] will travel light and journey lightly" (T-13.VII.13:4), free of the burden of having to solve by ourselves the problems that seem to oppress us. The fact that He solves the problems of the world so easily ultimately teaches us that these problems are meaningless illusions that have no effect on the joyous truth of who we really are. Therefore, they have no power to deprive us of our happiness.

Finally, He heals our belief that we have no rewarding function to fulfill by giving us the most meaningful and fulfilling function we can have on earth. This function is — you guessed it — forgiveness, our "function as the light of the world" (W-pI.62.Heading). He trains us to become miracle workers, extenders of forgiveness and salvation to our brothers in need. He gives us our special function, the particular form in which we extend forgiveness in the world, a form tailored to our particular strengths and special needs (see T-25.VII.7:1-3 and W-pI.154.2. Not only will fulfilling this function make us happy, but in truth our function is to be happy (see W-pI.64.4:2). This is the means by which we are ultimately restored to our Heavenly function of creation.

Thus the Holy Spirit heals our depression by healing the sense of deprivation at the root of our depression. He restores to us the things that we have deprived ourselves of. In the light of His teaching, the thought "I want it, but I cannot have it" — the root thought behind depression in all its forms — is transformed into "What I really want, I can have," and finally into "What I really want, I already have." For in the end, the Holy Spirit restores to our awareness the joyful truth that "God has given [us] everything" (T-4.III.9:2). How can we be deprived of anything if we have everything? And if we realize we cannot be deprived of anything, how can we be depressed? "What can be more joyous than to perceive we are deprived of nothing?" (T-15.XI.8:3).

Conclusion

Depression is a universal phenomenon in this world, however unacknowledged it may be. As we have seen, it is not confined to those whom the world diagnoses as "clinically depressed," but rather is the inevitable experience of anyone who identifies with the ego, which means virtually all of us. That's the bad news. But the good news is that there is hope. We have the power to stop depriving ourselves, and we have the Help we need to do so. The Holy Spirit stands ready to restore the joy that we have denied ourselves, awaiting only our invitation. Let us extend that invitation to Him, and allow Him to shine away our depression with the joyous light of truth. This may not happen right away; our sadness runs deep, and letting it go will likely be a long process for most of us. But the Course's promise is that however long it takes, the day will come when the light of truth shines our darkness away. No matter how dark things seem to be, "A happy outcome to all things is sure" (W-pII.292.Heading).

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