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.
Mindfulness is a very simple practice. It is a practice of generating more present moment awareness by shifting out of being so tightly identified with various thoughts and feelings and more aware of and interested in where we are at in the present moment (the right now). It is hard to say exactly how many thoughts the average person has from day-to-day, but from what I have read it is estimated at somewhere between 30,000-70,000 thoughts per day. That is a lot of thoughts! If most of these thoughts are negative (worry, remorse, judgment), which they normally are, that is a continual toxic cloud hanging over our lives, every minute of every day.
And yet we continue to pursue finding answers, fixing various issues, being happy in our lives, even while this toxic cloud follows us around. How is that supposed to work out? It is the hamster going around and around on the hamster wheel syndrome. All we have to do to stop going around and around on the wheel is step off to the side, but instead we keep going around and around believing that eventually there is some better place we will get to where we will figure things out. In a sense, this is the current human condition.
Mindfulness can be an incredibly difficult practice for those who struggle to step off to the side (even for just a minute). The vast majority of people tend to believe that there is some better destination up ahead where everything will be fixed and figured out if they can just think about things more. Shunryu Suzuki, the popular Zen Teacher, made the analogy that living like this is like being a bug stuck in a sticky spiders web, anxiously struggling to find a way out, but never really finding one. It is counterintuitive to most people, but from the mindfulness approach the way of getting unstuck from the web is to just step aside. We do this by slowing down and accepting that we are currently stuck (lost in thought). Then we stop being so focused on all the thoughts running through our brain by becoming more aware of breathing, sounds that are around us, feet touching the ground, sensations in our hands and feet, noticing our chest expanding and contracting with each breath, noticing objects that we are seeing. By becoming more fully aware of and interested in where we are in the present moment, we can step off the hamster wheel.
As a psychotherapist, I work everyday with individuals who really struggle with various difficult issues. As painful and life interfering as these issues are they are almost always a result of being too tightly identified with thinking (a mind that will not slow down). As the people I work with learn to not be as tightly identified with their thoughts, as they learn how to more and more pull themselves out of the web created by negative thinking, I witness radical changes in a person’s life. Again and again. So there must be something innately balancing to our brains and bodies by being able to be more present.
Difficulty sleeping, heavy depression, panic attacks, being overly stressed out about the future, chronic insecurities and self doubt, general unhappiness with life situation, addiction, chronic anger and worry and various other difficulties; all these difficult states seem to greatly lessen when a person is willing to step aside more and more in their day-to-day life. A person’s external life situation does not change much, but their inner way of relating to life changes radically. They are able to pull themselves out of the sticky web more and more often.
Traditional psychology says that we need to analyze thoughts and emotions (think more), go deeply into the issues that disturb us and as a result we will make certain connections, learn more about ourselves, resolve certain life long issues and then overcome our psychological duress. When this does not work we are offered a pill to take the edge off, while still engaging in traditional self-analysis. Then (maybe) we feel a bit better. In my graduate psychological training, this was the standard medical model of psychological care that was taught to students and which most psychotherapists advocate for as professionals. I feel that, in the long-term, this just makes things more complex (and profitable) than they really need to be. As much as talking about how you feel and what you have been through with someone who is deeply listening to you can be very healing, I feel like the benefits are short term. Cathartic at best because we are just engaging and articulating the thing that is the source of our problems- negative thoughts. It is not long until a person will find themselves tightly identified with habitual negative thoughts and emotions again.
The psychology of mindfulness is a simple psychology. It is a psychology, which rather than engaging a person’s thoughts and feelings as much, also puts an emphasis on engaging their ability to focus and be more aware in the present moment. Over time the result is that the person is able to be less identified with thoughts and emotions and more aware of what they are doing and where they are at in the present moment. The value is no longer placed so much on “figuring things out” or “resolving issues” but is instead placed on being more present with your life as it is, from moment to moment, breath by breath. This is often called self-regulation.
When we do this more and more, what we experience is that various psychological issues resolve themselves. The web becomes less sticky and we are able to climb out into a better, more present place (even if just for a minute at a time) made less unhappy by that toxic cloud following us around filled with all of our worries, remorse and judgments.
We all have certain emotions and thoughts that we would be happy to never see again. Judgmental thoughts, worried thoughts, self-doubting thoughts, bitter thoughts, fear-filled thoughts and dissatisfied thoughts are probably thoughts that we would all rather never have. Emotional states like terror, boredom, depression, despair, panic, general unhappiness/stress and anxiety are also probably emotional states that we would give away for free at the first opportunity to do so. For me the one that I would like to just leave on the curb for someone else to come pick up and take away, is anxiety.
I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I remember continually freaking out in my father’s single engine airplane as we went on our Sunday “trips.” When I was in my mid-twenties my anxiety evolved into episodes of full-blown panic attacks that caused me to rush to the emergency room way too many times. For a period of time, people who worked in the Emergency Room knew me as the guy who would stand outside the Emergency Room, “just in case.” Sometimes a nurse would even come outside with a cup of herbal tea or water for me to drink. A certain ambulance driver would often given me glucose tablets that were given to people having diabetic or hypoglycemic attacks (they helped!). It was a dark period in my life, the effects of which have yet to completely go away. I think once a person is afflicted with severe panic attacks, no matter how many years go by, any hint of a potential recurrence will trigger an anxiety response in the body and brain.
Anxiety is an emotional state that I have completely accepted as a continual presence in my life. I have had to make friends with anxiety over the years. I did not get it at the time, but in my late twenties, after running out of a small mindfulness meditation class while in mid-meditation, the instructor told me that anxiety was something I would have to befriend and panic was what happened when I could not be friendly with my anxiety. I thought that sounded ridiculous at the time, but I kept coming back to my mindfulness meditation practice so that each time I could learn to sit with the anxiety for a little bit longer. Gradually I was able to make friends with it (meaning not trying to push it away or reacting to it).
Fast forward fifteen plus years and many hours spent learning how to be present with and non-reactive to negative emotional and psychological states. It was Sunday afternoon (a few weeks ago) and I felt like something was very off in my body. I became nervous that something was wrong and my apprehension grew into a state of uncomfortable anxiety when the physical symptoms did not subside. A similar trigger response happened, just like what would happen when I would have panic attacks in my twenties. Now the difference is that I do not go into a state of panic. All the same fight/flight reactions are going on in my body. The same terrifying thoughts are filling my mind but I am able to keep myself from taking off into panic land. I was able to keep bringing myself back to the present moment. Keep following my breathing and remain aware of sounds and my feet touching the ground. This kept my body from going into a complete freak out. It kept my nervous system from spiking too high and gradually, very gradually the anxiety passed and I was fine.
A central premise of mindfulness practice is that all emotional states are impermanent. They will pass if we can remain aware, present and non-reactive. Some anxiety, anger or depression states may last a lot longer than we would like, but just knowing that it will eventually pass and that I will be ok, is what helps me to not go into a reactive state. Phew.
Fortunately, I am not visited by intense anxiety much these days but it is there at a lower level pretty much all the time. Anxiety is a presence that I have accepted in my life and this acceptance has made all the difference. It is just the way it is. I am aware of it, non-reactive to it and no longer trying to “make it go away.”
I feel that a lot of people have been suckered into believing that mindfulness practice (or any kind of self-help or psychological process) will eradicate or take away all of the negative, emotional and psychological states that they struggle with. Good luck. I just don’t believe that is possible. Every single mindfulness teacher I have studied with and read has always talked about how healing or freedom from suffering is about acceptance not fixing or getting rid of.
After decades spent trying to get rid of anxiety I believe that what they talk and write about is true. The closest we have come to being able to “eradicate” negative emotional and psychological states is psychiatric medications, but this still just represses and sedates. It can be very, very helpful for short-term relief but these medications keep whatever negative emotional and psychological states we struggle with hiding out in the corner, just waiting for the medication to wear off so they can come back out. A lot of contemporary research says that psychiatric medications seem to exacerbate or enhance our negative emotional and psychological states once we go off the medications.
I have concluded that the anxiety, depression, existential despair, anger, chronic worry, judgementalness, self-doubt and all the other fun parts of being a human being in the chaotic and stress-filled modern world, do not go away not matter how much we over-work or practice yoga, mindfulness or any self help modality. The way that I teach and practice mindfulness is more based in the practice of accepting what is. When we cultivate the capacity to be present with and non-reactive to whatever negative emotional and psychological states we are experiencing in the moment, they have a less destructive and disturbing presence in our lives. These states become much more manageable.
Yeah, every once in awhile I will get an anxiety attack. Such is the deck of cards I was dealt. We were all dealt a particular deck of cards. The essence of mindfulness is to learn how to become aware of the presence of these undesirable states when they arise and then quickly accept them by remaining as present, aware and as non-reactive as possible. This is why I practice mindfulness meditation even when everything is going good in my life. I know there will come a time when anxiety and other difficulties will show up and I practice for these inevitable times (I also practice so I can be more present and less conflicted in my life when times are good). Like Jon Kabat-Zinn often said during the mindfulness training I took with him: “The more you work on sowing your parachute, the more it will be there for you right when you need it.” This is why I continue to practice mindfulness everyday. Just in case.