If so I have good news: you can break free from all that negativity. The trick is to learn to make the mind work toward your best interests rather than against them.
Ever since starting this blog, I’ve sung the praises of meditation and right attitude as tools for building mental health. Not that many years ago I felt horribly familiar all the adjectives that open this post. I had tried many types of therapy and many different pharmaceuticals without much improvement. Eventually, I turned attention inward and began to work with my thoughts and feelings directly.
By clearing out misconceptions and misperceptions, I found clarity and readiness to accept whatever happens in life. I am not immune to grief and disappointment, but I am much more resistant to despair. Meditation succeeded where medication failed.
With the aid of such skills, my mental life improved so dramatically that I now question the value of all the diagnoses that were tossed my direction by doctors. Decisive recovery from longstanding problems shows the capacity of the mind to rework itself; resolution of symptoms also seriously challenges the “brain disease” hypothesis of mood disorders. There was plenty of cognitive detritus obstructing my path, but I doubt there was ever any organic problem in my synapses.
To see how dramatically I’ve improved, consider that my mother committed suicide when I was in the first grade. By late adolescence it seemed obvious to me that my own life would end the same way. It was merely a question of timing. How long would I put up with my awful heartache before deciding, in the words of Hamlet, “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?”
Despite years of thinking along negative lines, my mind no longer attacks itself. By studying the errors in my perceptions and beliefs, by learning to not mistake feelings for reality or thoughts for truth, I have found freedom from unbearable darkness. It now seems inconceivable that any emotion or circumstance could drive me to end my life.
This all sounds promising, I hope. It should offer reassurance to those who wonder if they could ever wake up from the nightmare of chronic severe depression. It can be done, I promise.
But how? If one is stuck in the depths of misery, the idea of meditating out of it probably sounds like an impossible dream. And early on observing the mind may actually increase awareness of emotional pain and cognitive obsession, which can seem like exactly the wrong result. The trick, in my opinion, is to start out with very small goals.
Don’t begin by signing up for a ten-day meditation retreat. Don’t even plan on sitting on a cushion for an hour. Rather, the next time you’re stuck in a waiting room or standing in line, pay attention to how you feel. Explore your sensations. Can you detect your heartbeat? Where do you find pain? Are you breathing or holding your breath? Get in the habit of checking in for a minute or two whenever there’s a lull in the action.
When you feel ready for more, adopt the same practice as you fall asleep. Take a brief break from reviewing and planning to feel your bodily sensations. Indulge in some slow, deep breaths. See how long you can focus on your body before your thoughts start churning again. Early on, you’ll be doing well if you can remain attentive for fifteen seconds. Be proud if you can achieve that.
Over time, you will extend your range. Maybe you will gaze inwardly a bit longer. Maybe you will catch an obsession and halt it. Every time you succeed, recognize your ability to steer your mental state, even if only briefly. The goal is to gain mastery over your mind, but this process takes years and is never completed, except by Buddhas. At first, consider yourself a champion if you can subdue a destructive thought long enough to choose a healthier one. As you gain skill, you’ll begin to desire more time for meditation. That’s when you should consider a retreat.
But don’t expect too much too soon. If at first you find it too painful to watch and feel, steer your mind toward pleasant memories or daydreams. This isn’t meditation as we usually define it, but it does involve guiding thoughts, so it can be very helpful. Such practice provides welcome breaks from inner misery. If you feel ambitious, you can use it to build up empowering visualizations. Paint a mental picture of yourself mastering a valued skill, or being generous to others, or feeling well and happy.
From just these brief suggestions, you can see there exist many ways to train the mind, and it can be fun experimenting with different methods. Check books out of the library, search for videos on the internet, or go to local gatherings (which often ask only for voluntary donations). If you have a religious faith, and if you feel comfortable in it, then it is a good idea to get more involved with whatever meditative or prayerful activities it offers.
I like to divide mental training into two explorations, though more knowledgeable students recognize many more categories. But for simplicity’s sake, just consider these two paths:
- A person can meditate to explore the ocean of consciousness by being mindful of the body, by observing thoughts, by focusing on feelings, by quieting mental activity, and so on.
- Alternatively, one can meditate to connect with cosmic love by centering on the warmth that emanates from the heart, by repeating sacred mantras, through visualizations, by attending spiritual rituals, etc.
I believe it is important for people who feel depressed to do both. Exploring the mind helps one learn to steer thoughts and not act on feelings. Nurturing love in the heart warms the inner child who feels lonely and unwanted. One does not need to believe in a Divine Being to find such comfort; just awakening to the affection that arises when holding beloved pets or watching children can accomplish the same end. But, of course, belief in a loving cosmic presence is a great way to find support if your philosophical prejudices will allow it.
Keep in mind as you work on meditating that other healthful activities remain vital. Exercise, good nutrition, socialization, creative arts, and compassionate acts all help improve mood and outlook. These days we can choose from a wide array of therapies and somatic practices that aid mental healing. Pursue as many avenues as you can to help yourself improve. Applaud yourself for every victory, but also treat yourself with tenderness. When you feel too depleted to do much of anything, accept your need for contraction and isolation. Compliment yourself for sitting up in bed, if that’s all you can manage. Eventually, when your energy improves, you can do more.
At all times, be aware that the aim is incremental improvement, not sudden sainthood. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “seek progress, not perfection.”
Good luck on your journey.