Helpful and unhelpful ways to meditate
Certain approaches to meditation may not be helpful when you’re depressed or have suffered from depression, but it’s hard to generalize.
Some kinds of meditation are not very helpful for depression, according to Buddhists I know who have suffered depression. There are techniques that involve “simply being with your experience” without reacting to it. That can be helpful if you have the inner resources to sit patiently with an unpleasant state, but it won’t even be possible if you lack those resources—and when we’re depressed we don’t have a lot to draw upon. You may find that paying attention to the unpleasant feelings that accompany depression may simply result in a downward spiral of despair.
Also, some techniques called “noting,” where we describe our experience as it’s happening, may not be helpful for people with a tendency to be depressed. Noting can be a useful tool, sharpening our perception and allowing us to be less caught up in our thoughts and feelings, but it can also be alienating. What can happen is that because our experience is painful, we retreat into commenting on it. This can lead to an unhealthy, detached state of numbness.
Lastly, meditations that involve reflecting on impermanence or unsatisfactoriness may not be helpful for some people with a tendency toward depression, for reasons that should be obvious.
It may be that you need to work on building your inner resources before employing any of these methods. In particular, the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice – which I teach elsewhere on Wildmind, or the related practice of cultivating compassion, can help you develop greater emotional resilience. These practices can help us have 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 depression, there is more of a challenge involved in making such changes, but also a correspondingly greater incentive for doing so.