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When Depression is a “Psychological Necessity”

James Anderson


A time comes in Integral Yoga when the transforming Force comes down into the physical. This often triggers an adverse reaction in its consciousness, causing a depressed state, which will be exacerbated if the vital is weary and the mind is disturbed. It is an inevitable process and Sri Aurobindo called it a “psychological necessity”. The author shares his experiences.

The diversions on our journey

In Integral Yoga, we sometimes need to take detours in our journey to the supernal Truth and Light. The path is not always sweetness and joy. Dismal corridors need traversing; there are trials and tribulations we must all endure and pass through. They cannot be avoided and there is an inevitability about their processes. It is not really a question of individual merit: they come to us all. In our initial passage, we live in the realms of duality and our egoistic consciousness ensures that we go backward and forward between contrasting states. That is a reality. It would be valid to say that not all of these are self-inflicted because these turnings serve a purpose in our personal evolution. They happen for a reason.

The problem is, the episodes experienced sometimes seem to have no justification at all. We get immersed in them and are unable to identify their true purpose. We identify with these states and so we become one with them. We have to climb to a much higher poise to discover the knowledge behind these rather perplexing experiences. Once we have and usually with the benefit of hindsight, we see they had provided a solid means for assimilation before proceeding to higher steps of self-integration.

One ordeal we often pass through in Integral Yoga in varying degrees is depression. Sri Aurobindo, in his Letters on Yoga, addresses the problem squarely when he frankly writes, “Depression is a clouded grey state in its nature and it is more difficult for light to come through clouds and greyness than through a clear atmosphere (1).”

Sooner or later, as we embark on this path, it seems this greyness is sure to visit us in one guise or another. Even the most sincere will not be exempt. This yoga never invites escape; there are no convenient exits in this practice. Sri Aurobindo writes that, “… these are things which come almost inevitably in one degree or another at a certain critical stage through which almost everyone has to pass and which usually lasts for an uncomfortably long time but which need not be at all conclusive or definitive. Usually, if one persists, it is the period of darkest night before the dawn which comes to every or almost every spiritual aspirant (2).”

Every conceivable human condition has to be faced, endured and offered. As long as the ego is present, there will be no let-offs. As the Mother says, “It is the ego that gets depressed (3).” As the very intention of our work is to disarm the ego, it is hardly surprising that it will get depressed! The very practice we do provokes it.

It is uncanny to notice how Sri Aurobindo’s words and explanations get constantly reinforced by personal experience. Indeed, I find it greatly intensifies the force of his teachings. It is the resonance we feel that implants the words into knowledge. How can this knowledge ever be realised if the words remain unlived? This must be the essence of all meaningful practice. It is also very reassuring. Somehow it gives the feeling that we are not on our own because there is always this guiding hand.

It is obviously very unhealthy to anticipate these episodes. That is the role of the surface mind. It is a major factor in this play. When that happens, the mental ego, with its sense of dread and foreboding, collaborates in the whole process of depression and can unwittingly make the condition more chronic. This anticipation usually draws its impressions from experiences of the past and once the condition gets embedded in habit, it becomes so much more difficult to uproot.

I came across the greyness at quite an early juncture in my sādhanā. It arose at a time when the initial euphoria and level of aspiration was beginning to wane and when the vital enthusiasm was starting to lose its sparkle. I felt the sense of freshness was starting to evaporate. In the early days of practice, we find our aspiration depends a great deal on the state of our vital nature. It is not a reliable fellow: the psychic connection has not been properly fused and that takes time. So we initially progress in fits and starts.

It was my second year on the path. From the very beginning, it had been impressed upon me to stay rooted in the body and keep it open to the light. However now its darkness was engulfing me! It was most perplexing. What was truly happening? It was not until quite long after that I could get a clearer perspective, until I read Sri Aurobindo’s words to a disciple that the questioner’s depression, “… was due to a plunge one has to take into the sheer physical consciousness unsupported by any true mental light or by any vital joy in life… (4)” Somehow this explanation then crystallised the whole affliction very clearly.

Opening to the Force and resistance of the physical

In Integral Yoga, one works with a descending Force. It can be tangibly felt in the being, particularly the body. My most vivid experience when I first arrived in Pondicherry came with an intense pressure coming down through the top of my head. It was very disconcerting at first but eventually I came to understand that the friction experienced was arising from my own innate resistance. Once realised, the anxiety vanished, much of the pressure eased, but leaving a reminder of my work undone.

An essential aspect of Integral Yoga practice is opening to this Force. There are sometimes hazards in attempting this too early before an authentic psychic connection is established, because there are many deceptive and beguiling lights which can impede our progress. Calling the Mother will always be our best safeguard.

We cannot dictate to this Force. It can be called but never controlled; it has its own agenda. Our look-out is only to remain as open and sincere as possible. Often it comes unannounced. Our limited individuality can never comprehend it; when there is the slightest aperture, it descends. There is a time when the physical must receive it. However, this can never be foreseen; it is impelled by the momentum of our practice. We must surrender to the guiding light of our sādhanā. I look upon this descent as a fringe of the Truth Consciousness, which has manifested and is presently permeating irrevocably the earth atmosphere. We are receiving a transforming force and a milestone is reached in this process when it descends down into the physical.

The reaction of the physical is predictable indeed. It can be very problematic to get the physical to voluntarily open to this descent. Its consciousness needs refinement through persistent inner work. When taken by surprise, the obscurity and silt that had lain for years at the bottom of its surface gets disturbed and exhumes clouds of torpor and inertia into the being. The body consciousness creaks, shinks and groans as it buckles under the pressure of this previously hidden and unexpected force. As the force is so unexpected, the physical doesn’t open but clenches. This is why the condition of the vital consciousness is so important. If it is flaccid, the vital will get simply overwhelmed and won’t know how to respond. Not every process unfolds in a way we expect or intend.

I’m sure this experience I went through was not altogether unique. Sri Aurobindo uses the word ‘grey’ and, for me, this word completely nails the experience. There was no sense of despair, nothing quite as grave as that, just an overriding flatness and torpor. All the vigour of my will and aspiration seemed to drain away. My appetite declined dramatically and I became somewhat self-obsessed. Everything became empty and dry. It was as if someone had switched all the lights off! I found myself in an extended condition of fatigue. However, I soon realised that there wasn’t much I could do about this affliction. My vital nature completely refused to intervene. I simply had to stay calm and let it pass. I went through my daily activities and tried my best to step back from what was going on inside. I had to keep calling for the Mother’s help even though there was little substance and force behind the entreaties. I seemed to be just going through the motions. There were long phases of greyness interspersed with moments of supplication. I seemed to be in a complete void. However, Sri Aurobindo’s instructions were somewhere implanted in my being, “… my advice to you remains the same, to stick on and still stick on persistently until the dawn comes…. (5)”

Learning from depression

But the greyness did pass and when it did, I had learnt something from the episode. The experience showed how much more I needed to work on purifying the vital. Eventually too, it gave a greater understanding of my physical consciousness and left a greater clarity of the inner work that needed to be done, particularly in the basement of my nature!

“The physical sadhana is to bring down the higher light and power and peace and Ananda into the body consciousness, to get rid of the inertia of the physical, the doubts, limitations, external tendency of the physical mind, the defective energies of the vital physical (nerves) and bring in instead the true consciousness there so that the physical may be a perfect instrument for the Divine Will (6).”

So when the sādhanā descends to the physical, try not to get too disturbed if your psychology reacts. It is all necessary for the transformative process. The more disturbed one becomes, the more prolonged will be the sense of depression; but even that will surely pass:

“What has to be done is to understand that it is a stage and to persist in the faith that it will be overcome. If this is done, then it will be easier for the Force, working behind the veil at first, then in front to bring out the Yoga consciousness into this outer physical shell and make it luminous and responsive. If one keeps steadily the faith and quietude, then this can be more quickly done — if the faith gets eclipsed or the quietude disturbed by the long difficulty, then it takes longer but even then it will be done; for, though not felt, the Force is there at work (7).”

From these insights, we can now understand how depression can sometimes be a “psychological necessity (8)”. When it comes, the best course is to grit one’s teeth and just endure.

“But when it is over, and when for some reason or other one has made the necessary effort to come out of it, and has come out, one usually realises that something in the being has changed, because, in spite of all bad will, most often the progress was accomplished — not very swiftly, not very brilliantly, not for one’s greater glory, surely, but still the progress was made. Something has changed (9).”


1. Sri Aurobindo. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 31. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 2014, p. 365.

2. Ibid., p. 364.

3. The Mother. The Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 14. 2nd ed. Pondicherry; 2014, p. 246.

4. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA. Volume 31, p. 364.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 367.

7. Ibid., p. 363.

8. Ibid., p. 365.

9. The Mother. Collected Works, Volume 7; 2003, p. 11.

James Anderson is a member of SAIIIHR and coordinating editor of NAMAH.

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