A Need For Spiritual Connection
Some 'depressions' respond only to a rekindling of spiritual awareness.
Posted Aug 30, 2016
The August 22 front page of the British newspaper The Times reported an epidemic of depression among teenagers. A government study, it said, has now called for "a new strategy" to reverse the trend. Depression, though, while it may be a biological illness that responds to treatment with medication, can sometimes be something else. In the case of the teenagers, one cause of malaise may more simply be that something vital has gone out of these young lives. They are missing a genuine and deeply-felt sense of purpose.
There is convincing research that most children, from an early age, have a sense of something special and personal connecting them with life and the universe, a kind of spiritual awareness linking them in a singular and exceptional way with a hallowed or divine realm (perhaps framed as "God," a supreme intelligence or a higher power), connecting them in a similarly sacred and universal way with nature, and with other people.
Here, for example, is what six-year-old John told researcher Rebecca Nye to explain his thoughts and feelings about "God:" "I am in a place with God in heaven and I’m talking to him… And there’s room for us all in God. He’s… God’s… well, he’s in all of us… He’s in everything that’s around us. He’s that microphone. He’s that book. He’s even… He’s sticks. He’s paint. He’s everything around us… inside our heart… heaven." John has not been taught about this. What he describes is an essential part of his everyday childhood reality.
There is, on the other hand, equally convincing research that by the time they are teenagers, in the face of adult discouragement, peer pressure and other powerful secular cultural forces, most of these children lose much, if not all, of this spiritual sensitivity. Mental well-being depends markedly on feeling that we each have a special place in the universe, and a unique contribution to make to the benefit of others, however small or humble. Losing such a vital sense of connection therefore puts young people at significant risk of depression, that is to say of feeling bewildered, anxious, afraid, doubtful, low in self-esteem, perhaps also angry and sad. This is best thought of not as a clinical syndrome but rather as a kind of spiritual malaise.
To use a metaphor, suppressing a vital energy source is like holding back the water from a mountain spring. Very often, all you get is a boggy mess, an unhealthy and unpleasant place to get trapped. Furthermore, in a predominantly secular society, the people you normally turn to for help might not yet have recognized, and be ready to admit, that they are equally stuck.
In earlier times, people were aware of the dangers, that neglect of life’s sacred aspect could lead, in serious cases, to a combination of despair, anxiety, boredom, frustration and restlessness, to commitment phobia and weariness with life, to self-disgust and disdain for others; and this psychological pattern was given a Latin name: "acedia." Qualitatively different from clinical depression, acedia requires a different approach: engaging in life-enhancing behaviors, developing and participating regularly in what some would call ‘spiritual practices’, a wide range of which – both religious and non-religious – are available to suit all tastes.
When undertaken in a reasonably disciplined fashion, these practices, aimed at retaining and strengthening spiritual awareness moment by moment, are highly effective. They can be introduced in childhood and maintained throughout the teenage years into adulthood. An excellent example is "mindfulness meditation." Already being taught in many schools, it has also been adopted by psychologists, proving helpful for many people bogged down one way or another by life, ill-health and related psychological problems.
Religious people have long taught and demonstrated the value of practices that include: developing a prayer life; attending worship; reading scripture, listening to, singing and playing sacred music; also going on pilgrimages and retreats. More secular activities of comparable value and efficacy to supplement or substitute for these include: engaging with nature; cultivating a garden; reading literature, poetry and philosophy; enjoying secular forms of music (particularly for example by learning to play an instrument); volunteering in the service of others; and, playing sport. These, similarly, can be relied on to recharge, encourage personal growth, foster a sense of self-worth, and provide the basis for an excellent set of values by which to live.
Consider the sportspeople of the Olympics, about whom we have also heard and read a great deal this month. Reflect not only on how they achieve and enjoy success, but also on how they face and eventually triumph through setbacks and disappointment. Where is the source of their inspiration, courage, determination and hope? It is the same mountain spring of spiritual energy that they have managed somehow to tap into again; seldom alone, but with the help of their coaches, their teams, and support from the government and people of their nations. It is at best, in other words, a communal exercise, involving a community of committed, motivated and energized individuals.
Olympic medals, in this sense, are secondary. The great prize and achievement for all participants is an improvement in self-belief and self-esteem; and it is a similar bounty that will surely save young people from the threat of the kind of ‘depression’ that is truly a form of acedia, of spiritual malaise or neglect. This re-connection with something great, subtle, inexpressible, mysterious and sacred; with something "inside our heart," as the six-year-old John said, where there is also, "room for all of us:" this is what will provide us with the necessary energy, guidance, inspiration, courage, determination and hope to enter the Olympics of everyday life, to overcome setbacks and triumph.
A wise "new strategy" to reverse the trend of negative outlooks among teenagers will take note of these insights. There is a slight drawback, however: Its success will probably depend heavily on large numbers of grown-ups leading by example. The good thing is that there is no need to wait, either for a persuasive government program or for inspired religious/spiritual leadership, to get started, to discover the best way out of the bog. There is already plenty of spiritual guidance available. Spiritual masters through the ages have reminded us confidently and encouragingly, “Wherever there is a pupil, there will be a teacher.” They are telling us not to hesitate. “Seek and you will find."
Copyright Larry Culliford
Listen to Larry interviewed live on ‘The Coaching Show’ on 4th February, 2015.
See Larry interviewing JC Mac about ‘spiritual emergence’ on You Tube (5 min).