Helpful and unhelpful ways to meditate
Some kinds of meditation are not very helpful for depression, according to Buddhists I know who have suffered depression. There are techniques called “Vipassana” or “insight meditation” that involve a lot of introspection and “simply being with your experience” rather than actively working to shape your experience.
Joan thinks that these methods have a tendency to lead people into withdrawn states. However, I’ve studied books by vipassana writers and personally found them to be very useful in my own practice, and I also know that clinical studies have shown that vipassana-style meditation techniques can be helpful in preventing relapses into depression. In fact a whole discipline based on insight meditation and called “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression” has arisen and been shown to be extraordinarily effective and preventing relapse into depression.
I suspect Joan may simply have had a teacher who was unable to help her use the Vipassana approach effectively. There are also different styles of vipassana meditation and it may be that some are less helpful than others.
What was helpful in Joan’s experience is the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice – which I teach elsewhere on Wildmind. This is a practice for developing more positive emotion – more patience, kindness, and love for oneself and for others. I cannot recommend this practice highly enough.
The first stage of the practice involves cultivating Metta (love) for oneself. When people experience a lot of self-hatred I often encourage them to spend most of their time on this stage of the practice. One thing that I also encourage – and Joan concurs with me on this – is that we have to start this practice by accepting where we are. I don’t mean accepting in the sense of “being happy to be depressed” or thinking that this is an okay place to be, but in the sense I talked about earlier when I talked about not making things worse by heaping on the self-disparagement, guilt, and feeling of inadequacy.
It is important just to accept that you are where you are, and also to accept that you can move from there. There’s nowhere else you can start from but where you are, so learn to be content to start from there.
It’s also important not to try to “manufacture” emotion. Beginning meditators (and some experienced ones) often feel that since the point of the Metta Bhavana practice is to develop positive emotion, then they need to somehow “make positive emotion happen.” And this can lead to denial or rejection of where we are. The practice doesn’t work that way. If you feel one of the mental states characterized by depression – anxiety, for example – then you need to start by looking for a sense of contentment to start from where you are, continue to experience the emotion of anxiety, and then work within that mental state. Hating the mental state will not help your problem. Hating your mental state is part of the problem.
One common technique is simply to repeat, “may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering” (this is only one technique, and is not necessarily the most effective for all people). One repeats these phrases while also honestly and openly experiencing the anxiety. Over time, the words have an effect on our emotional states, and the anxiety will weaken or even disappear altogether. But the important thing is to acknowledge the anxiety and not to try to manufacture an emotion to replace it.
Other ways of cultivating Metta involve a sense of receptivity to an external source of love. I think that this approach could be beneficial for some people suffering from depression. One can imagine that one is receiving love from an outside source, for example in the form of light, which can then flow through us and even radiate from our hearts as it flows on towards others. I have a hunch that his might be useful in depression.
Another useful way of dealing with anxiety and with a sense of being overwhelmed by the outside world is to visualize a protective sphere around you – a bit like a science-fiction force field. You can imagine that this protective sphere encloses you in a safe space. I’m not suggesting that there actually is a protective force field around you, but your subconscious does not distinguish between fact and myth, so if you imagine such a protective field, it will have an effect on you. I’ve personally found this technique to be very useful.
One last thing: meditation, and indeed all Buddhist practice – is based on the recognition that change is a universal truth. Everything changes. Meditation helps us to see this, and to recognize that we always have the power to influence and change our experience. With a chemical imbalance, there is more of a challenge involved in making such changes, but also a correspondingly greater incentive for doing so.