Most of us have, at some time in our lives, experienced or witnessed the turmoil of mental or emotional illness. Perhaps we have observed a close friend slowly succumbing to the shroud of depression, his personality regressing possibly to a state of psychosis. He loses interest in his work, his family, himself and in the extreme, he is totally disillusioned with life and may feel that suicide is the only way to relieve his suffering mind. All the sympathy in the world, all the words of encouragement fall on deaf ears. The anguished individual has fallen victim to the age old tragedy of despair, and no words of consolation will alter his downhill, self-destructive course.
Even modern drug therapy only treats his symptoms, but the root problem remains, lurking within, like a diabolic beast, waiting to take possession of the psyche at any given moment. This wild beast may also emerge uncontrollable - the dark shadow of human nature unleashed, driven to raging violence and psychopathy. Every day the newspapers are filled with the macabre results of such mental and emotional upheavals.
What can we do with this temperamental, devious, powerful mind? Shall we blindly ignore the shadow of the psyche- the repressed tendencies inherited from a multitude of births? Faced with this dilemma, we see our every action as futile, and feel impotent to interfere with destiny. Who are we, small insignificant beings, to think we can change the course of our fate? Alas, action is, as the Gita says, completely inevitable. While there is yet breath in the body, action or karma prevails. And we observe the results of this karma in ourselves, and ultimately in the society around us.
Every karma produces a result: ishtam, (desire) or anishtam (aversion) or mishritam (a mixture of both). When we are bestowed with good fortune and receive an ishtam, we are filled with happiness. But loss of job, money, or relationships creates anishtam, and we suffer the throes of mental anguish, anger, resentment and negativity, with all the accompanying mental and hormonal imbalances. The ego rises in anger, protesting against the whimsical injustice of fate. In this state, if the prana shakti is excessive and manas shakti is depleted, a person may behave in a completely deranged manner- the barbarian within emerges, lashing out against anyone and anything. Hence, murder, suicide and many other forms of disturbed behaviour occur. When a whole society is off balance like this, we have riots, wars and general unrest.
Therefore, we must be aware that as long as we live, we are doing karma, and in that sense our destiny is already decided. However, the way in which we perform karma can be altered so that we need not suffer adverse consequences. We only wallow in our mental suffering because we lack spiritual consciousness; but as we evolve through tamas, rajas and sattva, we discover that joy is the essence of our nature- not suffering. Suffering belongs to the world of ignorance. As long as we remain indolent and content with the superficial distractions of maya, we cannot expect anything but mental pain.
Karma yoga, the path of selfless service, so aptly described in the Gita, is the key to mental health and stability. It gives birth to a fresh, pure mind, devoid of samskaras, working in discipline and harmony for one's higher self. This mental stability is the foundation for spiritual evolvement. Without it, the mind will stampede in a myriad of directions, following every passing whim, dragging the emotions and intellect through the quagmire of each egoistic triumph. The mind cannot be obliterated, but it can be purified through the practice of karma yoga. Performance of one's duty, with higher awareness, for the pure joy of working for others, not caring about rewards of money or prestige- that is karma yoga. How can mental illness develop in such an individual who is free from disturbing conflict?
For the one who is already fighting mental disease, karma yoga has enormous therapeutic value. By immersing himself in a task, however humble, he will occupy his mind and body, thereby creating some form of stability, so that the manas, or mental energy can be brought under control. This idea is not really new. Mental hospitals have used 'occupational therapy' to help patients overcome anxiety, introversion, anger and various neuroses. Essentially it rebalances the prana shakti with manas shakti, which in medical science is comparable to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
For an extremely unbalanced person, exhibiting severe psychotic symptoms, a more holistic approach is required. The supportive environment of an ashram and guru hold a powerful vibration which can alter the mental wavelength of the disturbed person. In this situation he will either surrender to the flow, and find peace and freedom through karma yoga, or he will run away. And we all know that we can't run away from this persistent mind, for it will follow us everywhere. Ashram life has helped a number of disturbed individuals to regain some self-control; to discover a beauty in life that can only be perceived when one's mind is clear and focused.
Karma yoga allows every type of nature to be expressed. The aggressive person can utilise his dynamic personality to achieve, for example, works of social reform. That prevents needless frustration and anger so common in underemployed but talented people. The fear phobias, the compulsions, the obsessions; these can all be transformed into positive energy. There is no need to suppress or repress. Only a transformation in attitude is necessary. The work we shunned and despised as pointless or degrading, we can now regard as a vehicle of enlightenment, a method of self-healing.
Neurosis, psychosis, anxiety - these are illusory experiences of the mind, and to eliminate them, we need an equally convincing counter experience - a kind of 'real illusion', if you will. This cannot be achieved through reason, but only through a living experience, using the tasks available to discover the detached middle path between happiness and suffering.
Why be afraid of the fire of emotion? Remember that where there is friction, there is growth. So without emotional conflict, the being is locked into inertia or tamas. Regard emotional disturbances as the fiery combustion which provides light - the light of consciousness. Use the philosophy of karma yoga to re-channel this emotional energy, to rekindle your spiritual fervour.
Carl Jung, one of the greatest thinkers of this century, once said, "The supreme danger which threatens individuals, as well as whole nations, is a psychic danger." This 'psychic danger' must be completely understood in the individual consciousness so that we can recognise it as a primordial fantasy, and thereby free ourselves from such bondage. Repressions render the unconscious mind very dangerous indeed - a veritable breeding ground of mental and emotional disease. Collectively it results in a massive schizophrenic society, whose existence is nationalised only by one giant projection of fear, followed by defence, paranoia and wars. You cannot change society except by changing your own self, the self that is subject to the unconscious drives of uncontrollable fear and ignorance. Free yourself. Begin karma yoga today.