Dr. Milena Braticevic holds a PhD in Integral Health from the California Institute for Human Science. Her research focuses on exploring strategies for mental health development and the prevention of depression and anxiety. Her research explores how increasing awareness of non-duality and the natural state can help ease depression and anxiety without the use of medication. I sat down with Dr. Braticevic to learn more about her novel approach in the prevention and early treatment of depression and anxiety.
Can you give me a brief overview of how you got to where you are today?
I completed a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Toronto, with a minor in philosophy. After that, I went into business and had a software company with my brother for 13 years. During that time, I also completed my MBA at the Schulich School of Business. In 2015, we decided to sell our business and got acquired by Microsoft. At that time, I had already started doing my PhD in Integral Health.
What made you decide to pursue your PhD?
When I was 28, I experienced my first depression. I was stressed from being an entrepreneur and managing a company. What was interesting about the experience, was that depression took me by surprise—one day everything was fine, and then the next day, nothing was fine. I thought to myself, “How could this be a surprise?” I wanted to understand the underlying conditions that need to be in place for mental health.
Your primary area of research is on non-duality. Could you explain to our lay audience what non-duality is?
Non-duality is an old philosophy. Some of the earliest literature on non-duality originates from 1000 BC in the Vedic teachings of advaita vedanta. Advaita literally means “not two.” The whole teaching of advaita vedanta is a reminder that in reality, there is no separation. That's the basic explanation of non-duality. In modern science, physicist David Bohm explained that nothing in
nature is fixed, and that everything is going through a continuous process of change and development, or the “process of becoming”. To understand non-duality, it’s helpful to look at duality, which indicates fixed states and opposites, such as good vs. bad, mind vs. body, and self vs. other. Duality deals with identification and separation. Language, thoughts, and concepts are dualistic in nature because we have to identify something to talk about it. But if we believe that thoughts and concepts are the same as reality, then we're basically limiting our experience. The prevalence of anxiety and depression in the modern world is a result of a dualistic or fragmented view of reality. Non-duality is not a concept, it is a state of being, a direct experience of reality as it is. Although we can talk about it at the level of language, the experience of non-duality is beyond the conceptual mind.
How did you first come across non-duality?
In my PhD program, I took a course on non-dual awareness and was intrigued by it because at the time, I was doing research on alternative healing modalities. Currently, there are about 150 scientists around the world doing research on the healing effects of entheogens and psychedelics such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, and MDMA on addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. When I researched these alternative healing methods, I realized that they're bringing people to a state of non-dual awareness and are based on integration of experience. These healing modalities are powerful because they facilitate the level of experience beyond the conceptual mind. They light up new connections in the brain and can be effective in healing complex conditions even after a single session. I also attended a workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, where I experienced first-hand that the human mind can access non-dual awareness through guided meditations and experiential exercises, without the use of entheogens. This inspired me to develop an experiential program based on increasing awareness of non-duality and the natural state to treat anxiety and depression without the use of medication.
Could you give an example of a dualistic and a non-dualistic perspective?
You can have a dualistic or non-dualistic perspective on anything. You can take any object. Let's say a coffee mug. You can look at it from a dualistic perspective and say, “This is a coffee mug. That's all it is, and that’s all it ever will be. It doesn't matter what I do with it, as the mug is separate from me.” That's a dualistic perspective. With a non-dualistic perspective, you're looking at the same thing, but with a deep understanding of the underlying unity and interconnectedness: “This is a coffee mug now, but it came from clay, which came from minerals, which came from the earth, and I can affect its reality depending on what I do with it now. I can throw it into the garbage, I can upcycle it and create something new out of the ceramics, or I can recycle it to bring it back to the earth.” In a non-dual perspective, there is a deep understanding that everything is going through a process of becoming that you’re an active part of.
It’s interesting when we apply the non-dual view to relationships. We have a tendency to think in black or white. For example, if somebody does something that we don’t agree with, we might think this person is bad, but when practicing a non-dual perspective, it helps us to see that the
person is going through a process of learning and development. In this particular situation, they did things this way, but it doesn't mean that they are bad. It means that maybe they are confused, or they know something we don't. I’ve seen a lot of transformation when young people start looking at things and relationships from a non-dual perspective because it also helps them to see themselves as going through a process of learning and development, and they become more understanding toward themselves.
How can adopting a non-dualistic perspective help us in our daily lives?
A non-dualistic perspective increases the level of complexity and integration with which we experience the world. The non-dual state is the natural state, the state of being in which we experience reality as it is. It's a relaxed state of contemplation and awareness of the integrated nature of reality. Practicing this natural state can help us better understand who we are in relation to the world.
Most people don’t know that anxiety and depression occur in stages, from normal to mild, to clinical, moderate, and severe. Treatment is typically required at the clinical stage. Due to the nature of these disorders, it is crucial to intervene early, when the symptoms are mild and before they get to the clinical level. It is much more difficult and costly to treat symptoms once they become more severe, so time really is of the essence.
Awareness of non-duality and the natural state can help with prevention and early treatment of anxiety and depression because it allows us to see more clearly who we are and that we are a part of something bigger. Then, we don't have to try to control everything; we don't have to worry about every single aspect. We can trust that we’re doing our part, and that everybody else is doing their part. It’s a sense of being supported in the world as opposed to being overwhelmed by it. As we see more options that are available to us, this can lead to more creativity because we can try out different things. If there is no good or bad, then there are only opportunities that we can explore and experiment with. That's a much more fun thing to do than to constantly worry “Am I doing this right, or am I doing this wrong?”
Could you tell me about your PhD research study? What were your main findings?
The purpose of my research study was to examine how increasing awareness of non-duality and the natural state can affect young people with depression and anxiety. I had 17 young adults as participants, between the ages of 18 and 29. 59% were students, mostly from UofT. They were experiencing depression and anxiety between six months and 14 years; the average was 5.4 years. They had tried different methods in the past, such as medication, therapy, mindfulness training, CAMH Bounce Back program, meditation, and yoga. The study consisted of four weekly sessions, and each session included an educational, experiential, and behavioural component.
In the first session, I introduced the concept of non-duality. During the experiential exercise, I took participants through a short meditation that included relaxation, noticing thoughts come and go, and noticing the space between thoughts. The behavioural component consisted of practicing a non-dual perspective and experiencing the space between thoughts throughout the week.
The second session was about the natural state. The best way to describe the natural state is that it is the state of effortless effort, or just enough effort to feel alive. It’s a relaxed state where you’re aware of how you feel and who you are deep down. If nobody teaches us how to tap into the natural state, we can end up out of touch with our state of being and suddenly depressed, like me when I was 28. I just didn't know how depleted I was until a regular life event happened, and I thought, “I can’t deal with things”. Depression was a natural reaction of my system, a warning sign that I needed to recharge.
The third session was about the emerging and relational nature of the mind. This means that the mind is not something that is located in the brain that’s responsible for intelligence and reason. The mind is embodied, which means there’s a body-mind connection. It’s emerging, which means that the mind can actually develop, grow, and mature. The science of neuroplasticity has shown that the mind can develop and that new neural connections are continuously made through experiences. The mind is also relational in nature, which means the health of the mind depends on the health of our relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with nature.
The fourth session was a review of the first three sessions. It also covered future challenges, such as sustainability, the future of work, and the need for skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration, which are going to be key in navigating the changing work environment. We talked about the influence of powerful new technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, and how these technologies will need to address human problems. We talked about how understanding what it means to be human will be important in addressing all these challenges.
The study methodology included collecting the depression and anxiety scores before and after the study. After the study, the need for treatment for depression, which means instances of clinical to severe depression, was reduced by 72%. The need for treatment for anxiety, which means moderate to severe anxiety, was reduced by 68%. By the last session, many of the participants started experiencing insight and inspiration. It really opened up this higher level of awareness and creativity, where one can be guided naturally through the process of life. It showed that we can access higher levels of being, just by introducing awareness of non-duality and the natural state.
I also collected qualitative data on the phenomenological experiences, both from the experiential exercises and behavioural reflections. That was very interesting because it showed that a gradual increase of awareness of non-duality and the natural state allowed people to feel more relaxed over time, it reduced worry, and it gave them more tools to manage anxiety and depression. Participants developed a better understanding of themselves and other people. They reported increased physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. They also reported a higher sense of interconnectedness, increased creativity, confidence, and agency. When I did the 30-day and 6-month follow-ups, it showed that symptoms were reduced even more, which showed that increasing awareness of non-duality and the natural state created an upward spiral.
Now that you have evidence that this methodology can help with depression and anxiety, what do you plan on doing with it in the future?
This methodology can help with mental health literacy programs. It can help with understanding what the mind is and how it works, and how integration of experience is important for mental health. I consider myself a ‘scientist-activist’-I strongly believe there is a need to shift the mental health paradigm towards prevention. I'm excited about the potential of this methodology because it shows that we can prevent anxiety and depression from spiralling into a clinical stage and reduce the need for medication. I am also excited about working with young people because they are very curious about the philosophy of mind and learning about innovative ways to develop mentally. I'm looking to introduce non-dual awareness into the classroom and the workplace through different workshops and programs, and I look forward to contributing to the prevention and early-intervention mental health paradigm.
For more information on non-duality and the natural state, visit nondualperspectives.com
For more information on upcoming workshops, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by Celina Liu & Emily Deibert