Progressive forces within the mental health services encourage meditation. My personal experience convinces me that meditative practice can help a person learn to cope with dark moods and sorrow. It can teach one to appreciate the full spectrum of human emotion rather than always striving to feel ‘good.’
My meditative work began in 1987 soon after I first attended Alcoholics Anonymous and faced the program’s advocacy of spiritual growth. I realize now my good fortune in finding AA at age twenty-eight, since the twelve-step movement was perhaps the earliest major mental health program to advocate meditation as a tool for psychic wellness.
But AA’s theological language troubled me, because my scientist father had raised me as an atheist. I did not feel comfortable with overt references to God as a divine and omnipotent personality. In working through these conflicts, I tried a number of churches and spiritual traditions. I soon discovered a Quaker meetinghouse near my apartment. Because my maternal ancestors had all worshiped within the Religious Society of Friends, and because I’d been raised to respect the values of that group, finding the Fifteenth Street Meeting a few blocks from where I lived in New York felt like a Godsend.
Sitting in silent worship without scripture or sermons worked perfectly for me. I became a committed meditator in the Quaker mode. The Friends’ emphasis on right behavior and the contemplative experience of spiritual presence helped me find direction and meaning in life. My more hopeful outlook helped ease my burdens, but my depression still frightened me, and I fought hard against it.
Much more recently I started to hear that meditation helps people cope with mood issues, and I expanded the goals of my practice. Rather than meditating solely for spiritual realization, I started practicing to improve my ability to tolerate and benefit from uncomfortable emotional states. I soon learned that addressing my relationship to moods actually helped my progress toward mystical transcendence. I began to understand, in a deep way, how my suffering with depression was a manifestation of a deeper spiritual confusion.
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time I’d used meditation for a practical purpose. In 2000 I had taken classes in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness techniques in order to deal with chronic physical pain. Through direct experience, I’d learned that inwardly observing somatic distress makes it more bearable. Rather than running from pain, I began to consciously explore it and found great comfort and relief in doing so. Physical discomfort ceased being a frightening enemy, and became a teacher.
However, sitting with depression proved more challenging than relaxing into pain. So much ancient sorrow lay buried in my soul that at first gales of grief threatened to blow me off my intended course. My tolerance for mood extremes started out low, so I could only endure a little sadness before needing to distract myself with pleasant visualizations or other calming techniques. But gradually I acquired the confidence to delve deeper into my depression. Because I worked hard and persisted, I grew able to move through the painful opening of my heart. It was necessary, I realized, to accept my bereavements and regrets rather than deny them. Healing would only come by allowing my emotional body to have its say. So I did my best to remain calm and allow my sorrows free reign.
The process reminded me of the Buddha’s experience under the bodhi tree, when he was assaulted by the forces of darkness intent on diverting him from his path toward awakening. As I sat still in my moodiness, every manner of despairing emotion rose up over time, feeling terrifying and destructive, so that I often wondered whether sitting passively in the face of agonizing moods really made sense. But I continued working, going as far as possible each time.
Gradually, I began to experience the seemingly overwhelming emotional states for what they are: transient feelings. They are not physical reality, they cannot kill me, and they always pass. If I just sit with them and don’t act out, they eventually resolve and my mental life gets at least a little easier. Afterward, I feel wiser and stronger for knowing I tolerated the onslaught.
One time, about eighteen months ago, the emotions felt especially dreadful. I suffered a nasty flu, my neck arthritis was causing severe physical discomfort, and I was withdrawing from an antidepressant. So my mood spiraled lower and lower. I lay in bed trying to move toward my feelings, but every cell in my body simply wanted the pain to end. I yearned to run away from my despair. I’d have welcomed death.
Then, a simple thought occurred to me: “I couldn’t possibly feel any worse.” At first, this seemed to be a complaint, but very quickly I recognized a profound truth. I was at my absolute lowest emotional state, and it turned out to be survivable. I realized that no matter what happens in the future, the worst I will ever experience could never exceed the pain I already survived. It was a moment of realization, of Grace.
This is what it can be like to meditate through depression. You get to meet your demons. In fact, they will rush at you with their most spectacular fury. But if you stand your ground you will see them as they truly are: illusory and transient. They cannot destroy you. Their only power lies in their ability to frighten you into taking action that could indeed be harmful. If you do not act, you suffer no injury. Eventually, you come out the other side with newfound strength and wisdom.
No doubt I have much to learn about meditation and the human mind. However, I already have discovered what matters most: I can tolerate my moods. I can live through them. They can instruct me. Oddly, I can even enjoy the emotional turmoil that so intimately connects me with humanity’s fate on earth. Meditating through my depression has shown me the universality of pain, and the availability of Grace.
Depression still surrounds me from time to time. Dark weather systems move across my psychic landscape, but rather than feeling tossed about by the tumultuous winds of moodiness, I sit quietly and enjoy the energy and majesty of emotional life. Such is the gift of meditation.