Learning new patterns
Although I’ve suggested that it might be unwise to meditate when severely depressed, generally speaking the time to meditate is now, not when conditions are perfect, like waiting until you feel really good, or once the house is really tidy, or once you’ve given up smoking.
Except for the most severe attacks of depression, meditation can be a very helpful practice, but only if you do it.
Sometimes people have a pattern of using their depression as an excuse to stay depressed, and it’s vital to unlearn that pattern. Learn the new pattern of working within depression to change your mental states. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep experiencing what you’ve always experienced, so start making a change now. Don’t expect immediate change, and don’t give up too easily. Change may not always come quickly, but it will come if you make an effort.
When you start to meditate, you start to become more acutely aware of the patterns of thoughts and feelings that you habitually experience. We all have these habitual patterns. You might notice, for example, that when your work isn’t going well, you start to think repeatedly that you are not competent. And the more you think these thoughts, the more despondent you feel.
Then you label this thought as “depression,” and THEN you think there’s nothing you can do about it, and so get sucked down into a morass of hopelessness. This kind of pattern repeats itself over and over. Our emotions are like rivers that create gullies for themselves. The more water flows in a particular direction, the more likely it is that water will continue to flow in that direction. But as irrigators can change the flow of water, so too can we change the way that our thoughts and feelings flow.
One of my friends says, when you tell him you feel depressed: “What are you depressing?” What this suggests is that depression is a process, not a thing. Depression is to some extent something that we do, rather than just a state that we experience. This is true, by the way, for all emotions.
With depression that is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, there is a component both of “enforced” depression, where the brain simply is predisposed to generate unpleasant emotional states, and also of “habitual” depression, where we unconsciously add to the existing unpleasant emotions by the way that we react. Medication can help take care of “enforced” depression, while therapy and meditation can help take care of “habitual” depression.
This is important to take on board, this idea that depression is something created. The kind of process that leads to us “depressing” is typically something like the chain of events I’ve outlined in the paragraph above, but it may vary from person to person. It may well be that the “trigger” for habitual is the start of a period of enforced depression. The brain chemistry alters, unpleasant mental states start to arise, and then habitual patterns of giving in and of building up depressed states start to kick in.
The sequence of events can happen very quickly. You’ve practiced it for years and have gotten very good at it. Some of the stages may happen so fast that you might not even notice them even if you try to pay attention what’s going on.
You can help to identify these patterns more clearly if you write down your thoughts. Natalie Goldberg, in her book Wild Mind, gives an excellent writing exercise in which you sit down for a set period of time (say 10 minutes), and write non-stop in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The important thing is just to keep writing. You don’t stop and go back over what you’ve written to make it better. You don’t correct spelling or grammar. You keep your hand moving at all times. Sometimes you have nothing to write but “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over. And that’s okay. Once you’ve written that sentence a few times you’ll find other things emerging.
The value of this exercise is that it helps us to slow down our thoughts. Eventually you’ll find that you develop the ability to direct your stream of consciousness into writing that is less random and more focused. At that point you’ll begin to appreciate the patterns in the way you think and feel. I’ve found this method to be very useful for breaking out of “stuck” emotional states.
Meditation, over time, also helps us to notice the emotional patterns that we have established. We start to realize that we don’t have to repeat the same emotional scripts over and over, and that we can choose more helpful emotional responses, like patience, confidence, and appreciation.