Mindfulness and “My” Depression

On Sunday, an old, familiar friend dropped by my house to say hello. I knew he was coming so I had some time to prepare. This old, familiar friend commonly goes by the name Depression. I prefer the name Melancholia but refer to him as Depression. Depression is a feeling of despair, a kind of “what is the point?” Depression feels similar to when you lose a game that you cared about winning. It is a feeling of ultimate defeat, a pain-filled turning inward into oneself because there is no place else you want to go.

There is an aspect of depression which is genetic. Depression runs deep in my family lineage. My grandfather did not leave his home the last twenty years of his life. He sat in his recliner listening to classical music and pretending to play a violin. A defeated classical musician no longer feeling any sense of purpose in the external world.

Depression is also situational. There is much to be joyful and grateful about but there is also equally as much to be depressed about. Depending on which direction the mind leans in will often determine how a person feels. For many like myself, life can be a continual seesaw ride, back and forth between depression and gratitude.

I don’t mind depression. There is a lot of beauty which can be found in this state. Sometimes I feel like it is a very honest assessment of the state of things. Depression can be very fertile creative ground. But sometimes depression can create as much physical pain as any bleeding wound would.

This is where I found myself on Sunday. Why was not nearly as important as the awareness that I was experiencing depression (emotional pain) and then the acceptance of it.

My practice of mindfulness is not about being a happier or better person. Thankfully I don’t have the expectation to feel more happiness, less depression and anxiety in my life the more I practice mindfulness (I did when I first started though). I think that the moment a person has an expectation that any practice will make them a happier, less anxious and less depressed person is often the moment a person gets discouraged with any kind of practice.

In its foundational form, mindfulness is the ability to keep our attention planted in the present moment. To be here. To live in the here and now rather than in the illusory future and past. The present moment is the terrain of mindfulness practice and the more a person practices the more they can hang out in the present moment, no matter what is happening.

Being present does not mean expecting things to be a certain way in the present moment. If I am anxious or depressed in the present moment and I do not like it or fight against it, this will only make things worse. Being present means being aware of whatever is arising in the present moment and accepting it as it is. Not attaching to it more than need be. Like a rainy day, since it is already here why not just accept it? Once we can accept, we can begin to move towards our baseline (a more grounded state of being).

Depression, anxiety, anger and many other difficult emotions tend to be very sticky. They stick to us and cause us to deeply identify with them. We refer to them as My depression, My anxiety, My anger and on and on. The very word My implies a future and a past. My is always attaching to every emotion and thought it has. My is the opposite of acceptance. What a dreadful state My can be!

The moment we are able to bring our attention into the present moment, My loosens its grip on whatever emotion it is carrying around. It realizes, “Oh things are not as terrible as I think,” and then it begins to loosen up.

Saying it is My depression is as inaccurate as the sky saying, “It is My cloud.” Nope! Just like emotions, clouds are continually moving across the sky. I suppose a cloud could somehow be blocked for a bit by the sky, but eventually it would dissipate. No matter how hard it tries, the sky can not hang on to clouds. Same with My and emotions! The moment we call it My depression or My anxiety, we block the emotion and keep it around for A LOT longer than need be. But eventually it passes no matter how attached we want to be. Are you still feeling the same emotion now that you felt last Saturday afternoon? Most likely not (unless you are still attaching My to it).

All emotions eventually pass. Whether it is the most painful depression or the greatest joy, it passes! I often think of mindfulness as a practice of hanging on in the present and letting things move through. Mindfulness is the ability to let emotions move through just like the sky allows the clouds to move through (sorry for the cliché analogy but it is early and my mind is not coming up with anything better). Mindfulness has nothing to do with being a happier and less depressed person. Ironically though- a sense of well-being and calm is what tends to happen more often when we are not attached to My emotion.

Ps…..I don’t feel depressed now.

The Mindfulness Bookmark

If you are anything like me, it is a continual effort to remain present. I have a brain that is constantly looking for the next thing, continually thinking about doing something else, continually worrying about what might go wrong, continually planning, evaluating and judging. My brain is a control freak. It wants to figure everything out. It wants to take care of everything. It wants to think about things that will most likely never happen. My brain seems to only really rest when I watch a movie, stare off into my iPhone, listen to music, meditate or engage in other activities that engage my attention and focus.

My brain is a brain that resists the security, fulfillment and clarity of the present moment.

For whatever reason, my brain is always on duty. Always getting ahead of me. Always judging and resisting. Always pushing away and reacting. Always projecting itself into the future. In psychological terminology this is referred to as hyperactivity or chronic hyperarousal (normally the result of trauma). The diagnosis for this is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition that is all too common in our modern world.

My brain always wants to accomplish things. It wants to figure things out. “Go, go, go!!,” it says. After a cup of coffee it really gets going. It judges, it projects, it worries, it imagines. It is fascinating watching my brain do what it does. I don’t need to watch films or television- the activity of my brain is entertaining enough. I don’t want to imagine what it was like for me when I was not able to observe the workings of my brain but instead was just helplessly going along with wherever it took me. It got so bad in my twenties that I needed Paxil, weed and booze to cope. Can not imagine the road I would of gone down without running into mindfulness practice.

Michael Brown, a meditation teacher and author, calls this kind of brain the conditioned, unconscious brain. What is meant by unconscious is that the individual is not aware of how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. This is often what is meant by “you do it to yourself.” He refers to this unconsciousness factor as the fundamental and all pervasive human illness. It is responsible for more stress related physical illnesses, broken marriages, violent behaviors, accidents, dysfunctional relationships, addictive behaviors, mental health issues and general life dissatisfaction levels than we are even close to being aware of. It is the cause of so many undesirable effects.

In my psychotherapy practice, I see proof of this all day, everyday. The root of the vast majority of mental duress that I see people suffering from (and medicating for) is a brain that is running out of control. The speed at which a person’s out of control thoughts are moving is exhausting their body, causing uncomfortable and sometimes serious physical and psychological symptoms. Their brain is worn down by all the rapid-fire thinking and as a result they feel anxious, depressed, tired and chronically worried. They are often totally unconscious about how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. The moment these individuals are able to slow things down, to become more conscious and focused in the present moment- it is amazing to watch the uncomfortable mental and physical symptoms that tormented them melt away. The hard part is getting them to come back to this more conscious space when not in my office! How easy it is to be taken over by an out of control brain without any technique in place to slow it down.

For me, mindfulness practice is not about abolishing my ego and becoming an all-loving-enlightened-being. It is not about attaining some spiritual or religious realizations that allow me to live in a space of bliss, love, peace and truth. Not interested in that. I like my ego too much to hand it over. I value the wide range of human emotions I experience and the various creations of the ego such as literature, art, music, film, design and ideas. I use mindfulness as a way to continually bring myself back to the present moment. For me, mindfulness practice is like using a bookmark while reading. I am continually moving forward in my life, experiencing a wide range of emotions, feelings and thoughts- mindfulness practice just allows me to mark the space I am at. To remember the place I am in right now.

I am continually bookmarking myself. This is my mindfulness practice. Bookmarking here, bookmarking there. Bookmarking when I get angry, irritated, anxious, excited, depressed, judgmental, worried, nervous. Bookmarking when I notice that I am in a hurry and when I am in a difficult situation. Bookmarking when I notice that I am worrying about the future or resisting what is happening in the present. I am continually bookmarking myself, again and again and again. It is like I am a reader with ADD, continually starting and then stopping, starting and stopping. As a result of this practice, I am continually coming back to solid ground. I experience more peace and wellbeing. More clarity and calm. A deep sense of confidence, contentment and creativity. I don’t need medications or magical elixirs to calm things down. I can take care of that by using the mindfulness bookmark throughout my day. In whatever situation I am in. Again and again and again, continually bringing myself back to the place that I am in right now. Remembering to pay attention in this moment, to this breath- the only place real sanity can be found.

ONE Fundamental Mindfulness Tip

The one fundamental thing that mindfulness practice has in common with all contemplative practices is the fundamental understanding that there is not anything keeping you anxious or unhappy other than your own thoughts.

This is an important thing to understand, so I will repeat it.

There is not anything keeping you anxious or unhappy other than your own thoughts.

Meditate on it and you will see for yourself that it is true.

All of your anger, all of your anxiety, all of your worry, all of your stress and all of your depression is ultimately created by YOU. We blame others, we blame our circumstances and we take various medications to find relief or resolution. But the relief or resolution we are searching for never really comes because ultimately we are looking in the wrong place.

As a psychotherapist, again and again I meet people become very frustrated and disappointed when they realize that they are the ones causing mental turmoil for themselves. No one is ultimately doing it to them. They are choosing it even though it often feels that circumstances are the cause. They would prefer that someone or something else solves their problem. They are looking outside of themselves for a cure (and a lot of people/corporations are getting very wealthy off of this endless search). They do not realize that there is no external cure to be found. The cure involves doing the inner work for themselves. Many people just do not want to do it and thus perpetuate their own unhappiness.

I will occasionally experience depression (sadness), anxiety and anger. It comes in passing waves like the weather or the weekends. Because of my mindfulness practice I am able to see the root cause of my anger, depression and/or anxiety when it arises and then quickly do the inner work so that I do not become reactive or stuck in it. I see that what is causing these negative emotional states is my thoughts and as a result of this insight I am able to refocus my attention off my thoughts and into the present moment.

For example, yesterday I felt myself becoming angry with a friend of mine who did not agree with something that I wanted to do. I felt like he was not listening to me and also not trusting that what I wanted to do would work. He was opposing me in a way that made me feel anger. I felt my chest constricting and my voice rise. I wanted to release uncomfortable pressure by reacting. I noticed that my thoughts were racing and filled with negative, self-righteous and victimized content. Immediately, I took my attention off my thoughts. I focused on my breathing. I reminded myself that I was just standing in my kitchen, noticing that the rain was coming down outside. I felt my feet on the ground and noticed my hand touching the cold kitchen counter. I came “back to reality” and in a matter of moments the anger dissolved away. I also was able to realize that what my friend was suggesting was actually a better solution than what I wanted to do.

There is not anything keeping you anxious or unhappy other than your thoughts.

Realize this tip again and again through out your day and you will drastically improve the conditions of your life. You will not need medications, doctors and other people to cure the psychological and emotional duress that is within you. You will be able to take charge of your own inner life and as a result transform your external life. This is not an easy thing to do, but by doing just five minutes of mindfulness practice everyday it will make it much easier to see that the cause of most of your unhappiness is the thoughts in your head.

So go ahead. Take a few moments and come “back to reality.” Take your attention off all those thoughts spiraling around in your head and notice where your body is in time and space. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice what you are seeing and hearing. Breathe.

The Real Power Of Right Now

The truth of the matter is that we do not ever really permanently overcome anything. To overcome is a verb, which means to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty again and again and again and again. To overcome something is a lifetime practice.

As some of you have realized by now, to be human means to be confronted with continually arising problems and difficulties. As soon as we have been successful in dealing with one problem or difficulty- WHAM! a new one is there to take its place.

This is why it is best to think of success as a process rather than being a noun or something permanent that we attain. Success is as fleeting and impermanent as everything else. One moment we may feel its benefits but the next moment we are aware of its absence.

This is why I believe that our real life’s work is in learning how to effectively manage, handle, deal with, carry and regulate the suffering that comes along with being human. Depression and anxiety are very palpable experiences that cause a person to feel like they are being consumed by their fear, worry, darkness or anger.

These uncomfortable emotions feel like they are taking us over and we feel like there is little we can do to defend ourselves against them. But there is a lot we can do. This is one thing that I know for certain (and there are not many things that I can express with this kind of certainty)- we can empower ourselves to feel better, to feel more in control despite the suffering we feel.

Without question, my real life’s work has been to learn how to be able to effectively manage or handle my fear, anger, sadness, worry and despair when it arises. Through practicing mindfulness techniques I find my self stuck less and less in negative and unpleasant emotional states.

It is not that I do not feel anger, depression, anxiety, pain or sadness anymore. I experience these states in some form almost everyday (if even for just five seconds) but again and again I am successful at keeping myself present and just carrying the discomfort until it passes. This causes the negative emotional states to not feel so strong when I encounter them and to pass away fairly quickly once I become aware of them and let them run their course.

It is through learning how to effectively manage my more unpleasant emotions and thoughts that I am able to find more and more equanimity, contentment, freedom and peace in my own life. This is what I mean by transforming suffering.

In one of my notebooks from a workshop that I took with Jack Kornfield I made a note of several things he said. One of those notes that I put a star besides says: “As we practice the art of mindful living, a spaciousness will open up for us around our feelings, thoughts and perceptions and we will be less likely to be reactive to the unpleasant situations in our lives.”

In the seminar this Saturday I will be helping individuals learn and integrate several mindfulness techniques that I learned from Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn and several other mindfulness teachers. These techniques (or practices) empower us to feel like right NOW, in this very moment, we possess tools that we can use to create a much less stressful experience for ourselves and those whom we are closest to.

And after all it is important to remember what Carl Jung said about practice, “A person who gets past the age of thirty and does not have some kind of daily practice to keep themselves grounded in sanity will most certainly lose their minds over and over again.”

Sorry I Can’t Listen To You Right Now Because I Am So Deep In My Head That I Can’t Hear You.

“Randall, Randall, are you listening to me?”
“What honey, what did you say?”
“You weren’t listening to me.”
“Sorry baby, I was someplace else.”

This is often a typical exchange between my wife and I. I am happy to say that it does not happen as often as it once did, but it still happens. Still comes up now and then. I have a tendency to get pulled deep into my thoughts. Sometimes I find myself so lost in thought that I am not aware of the sensation of my feet walking on the ground or the breathing process that is going on just under my nose. Again, I have fallen into an emotional funk because I have been spending the past thirty minutes lost in negative thoughts.

Some people are blessed. Going deep in to their heads is a pleasant experience. They are able to get lost in thought and not feel any negative consequences. Their thought process is generally constructive, useful and positive. Their thoughts are not filled with judgments, apocalyptic scenarios and other content that depresses, enrages or scares the shit out of them. Living inside their heads is a friendly experience.

Even though being lost in thought, whether it is positive or negative, takes us away from the present moment of our life (and after all, mindfulness practice is all about learning how to live in the present moment more often than not), at least some people have the good fortune of having thoughts that are conducive to mental and physical health. However, for the vast majority of us I would be willing to bet the small amount of money in my savings account that this is not the case.

Anxiety, depression, relationship issues, ANGER, addictions, stress, lack of a feeling of success in life, lack of ambition and hyperactivity are all secondary states. They are the result of getting lost in a head that is not a friendly place. A head that is filled with one negative, fear or judgment filled thought after the next. A thought process that is overly focused on what is wrong or what could go wrong at any second. Unfortunately for these people- living (unless intoxicated or on psychiatric medications) is more often than not an unpleasant experience.

But there is an alternative.

Practicing mindfulness has taught me how to have conversations with myself that go something like this:

“Everything good in your life can vanish in a second.”
“Death is always right next to you.”
“You have not succeeded at your dream.”
“It sucks what you have to do today.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“I wish I had made it as an artist or writer.”
“You need to write more, stop being so lazy.”
“You have failed because you don’t make a lot of money.”
“You don’t have the freedom to do what you want to do.”
“I’ve failed in life.”
“Maybe you are sick?”
“This sucks. I don’t want to do it!”
“Randall, you are currently caught up in a lot of negative thinking.”
“Stop, take a breath.”
“Granted you are not Jim Jarmusch or Haruki Murakami, but that is ok.”
“Your life is good as it is.”
“Just breathe.”
“Can you hear those sounds?”
“Can you feel those sensations in your body?”
“Can you smile?”
“It is all good man. You are ok just as you are.”
“Just slow down.”
“Breathe in and breathe out.”
“Everything is fine.”
“Let it go.”
“Just be here now man. That is all that matters.”
“Ok, I’m good now.”

and then…..

“Randall! Randall! Are you listening to me?”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. I am here. What were you saying?”
“(Sigh) Will you please take out the trash? It’s starting to stink.”
“Yeah, sure babe. Sorry- I will do it now.”

A No BS Approach to Mindfulness

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.