I’ve wrestled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember (my memory has only been minimally ravaged by the aging process and too much partying at too young and age). I use the word wrestle because when I am experiencing these negative emotional states, or what the mindfulness teacher Andrew Weiss refers to as the mental storm, it literally feels like a wrestling match. I even sweat sometimes. I am wrestling in order to not let the terror over take me. Sometimes I am wrestling to stay focused on life as it is in the moment, without getting caught up in the mental storm, which seems to be demanding my full attention. Even when I sit in meditation, I feel like I am often spending twenty minutes at a time just wrestling with my racing thoughts so that I can break free from their tight embrace and eventually experience being fully present in my life, without the tyranny of over-thinking getting in the way.
I often hear a person speaking about mindfulness practice in what I think is a confused way. They seem to think that the more they practice mindfulness, the more they should be able to change their thoughts, or push them away. Like a magic wand waved inside their brains, they seem to “think” that mindfulness practice will make negative thoughts disappear. But this is a misconception that is almost as misdirected as believing the earth is flat, or that you are the way you are because of your genetic inheritance. The truth of the matter is that mindfulness practice does not change a thing, but at the same time it changes everything.
I could be wrong, but I am not willing to buy into the future-based thought that one day my depression or anxiety will no longer be an issue for me. These unpleasant energetic states have been with me for as long as I can remember and I imagine that they will be with me for as long as I will remember. So be it. Jack Kornfield once told me that depression and anxiety are my most loyal teachers, because they have never left me alone for too long. Given the choice I would not want these teachers to leave me alone. Just like an illness that makes you really appreciate your health once you have returned to a state of health, when depression and anxiety are absent there is no greater lover of an ease filled life than I. I would not trade my days and sometimes weeks filled with anxiety and depression for anything. They force me to practice mindfulness and make my life so wonderful when they are absent. Mindfulness practice is not for when life is good. When life is good, mindfulness is usually a natural by-product of happiness (happiness and mindfulness seem to go together like leaves and branches). Mindfulness is an innate, natural state when life is exactly as we want it to be. You will find it if you look hard enough. I have no need for mindfulness when things are good because it is just there. I practice mindfulness for the times when I find myself standing alone on the other side of the happiness coin. For when life is not how I want it to be.
Like a lab technician who puts on a protective outfit before going into the laboratory, or a business person who dresses up in the appropriate clothes before going into the professional environment- mindfulness is a container that helps us move steadily and calmly through life when life is not how we want it to be. Andrew Weiss writes, “Even if all we can do is greet our mental storm with acceptance, we are already doing a lot.” Mindfulness practice does not change our thoughts anymore than the businessperson’s suit changes her skin. What mindfulness practice does is help us to carry whatever our inner states are, just as they are. If our inner state is filled with fear, anxiety and/or depression we use mindfulness practice to be with the negative and uncomfortable energy just as it is. We can develop the capacity to be fully present with our inner negative energy states without getting consumed by them. The more we use mindfulness to be fully present with what is, the more that we notice that the negative energy states or mental storms are just dark clouds passing in the night. In the morning they are gone.
It is only when we can not see an inch beyond the mental storm, that the negative energy states ravage us. The moment we bring mindfulness into the picture, we can stop wrestling with the thoughts and just be present with what is: we are breathing, we are hearing sounds, we are feeling certain emotions, we are experiencing constriction in our bodies, our minds are racing and on and on. We remind ourselves that EVERYTHING is impermanent and if we can just create some space around the negative thoughts, what once felt so important and threatening no longer is.
For so long I did not get this. When I was feeling terror or depression I ran to the bar for relief. Beer did indeed work. I was able to feel relaxed and have fun! It numbed my mind so that my thoughts became like flat tires. The thoughts lost all momentum and for an hour or two I experienced complete joy (freed from the tyranny of my mind). I was normal again! But I could only handle so much beer and it was not long until some negative or judgmental thought came along and filled my flattened thought process back up with air. In the end I always found myself worse off than when I took a sip of the first beer.
The most challenging aspect of mindfulness practice is learning how to be present with what is. Our mental storms are often like a vacuum that sucks us in and causes us to lose all present moment awareness. We get consumed by the whirlwind of negative, judgmental and fear-filled thoughts. It is so easy to get caught up in the storm of the hundreds of thoughts that are generated every minute by the brain (to make matters worse an anxious brain can generate over 500 thoughts a minute!). When we do not want to meet life on life’s terms it’s like trying to move forwards against hundred mile an hour winds. What I have found is that if I dedicate myself to practice, rather than just doing it here and there, I can do it. As I move forward (step by heavy step) and walk through the strong wind, it is possible to stay with the breath, the sensations, the sounds and allow the mental storm to move through me without getting thrown a hundred miles back. This is mindfulness practice.
So this how it is now. No bullshit.