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Meditation and Depression

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Some specific tools for dealing with depression

I am convinced that you can always make some change in your mental state if you want to. It may be more difficult during periods of depression, and the changes may be slight (the depressed mind will tend not to notice them or to dismiss them as trivial) but it is still possible. There are various ways to change mental states. Posture is important.

Sometimes in a meditation class I’ll ask someone to “be depressed.” Often they’ll give me a funny, look like they’re not quite sure what I mean, then they get it and the whole body starts sinking like a wax candle that’s too near to a source of heat.

With John, whom I lived with for two years, I noticed a consistent collapse of his posture when he was depressed. Having your head sinking towards your chest is almost guaranteed to make you focus narrowly and repetitively on a very gloomy pattern of emotions. Having your shoulders rolled forward, your back slumped, and your chest closed is guaranteed to reinforce depression.

That’s right — the “depressed posture” can actually cause feelings of depression.

So if you notice your posture collapsing and your breathing becoming slow and focused on your belly, then straighten our your posture, open your chest, keep your chin up. It’s simple, but it makes a difference. (I know this sounds like your primary-school teacher — “Chin up, chest out, sit up straight” but you know, sometimes those teachers were right).

Notice your breathing as well – your depression will be associated with particular patterns of breathing. The exactly pattern of breathing associated with depression will depend on the emotions involved. With anxiety, there is a tendency to breath rapidly, and from the chest. In this case, slowing down the breathing and bringing it into the belly will be helpful in dispelling the anxiety. Note, however, that anxiety tends to cut us off from experiencing our emotions fully, and as you begin to take more awareness into your belly, you may come into contact with emotional states that you have been avoiding experiencing.

In other cases, the breathing might well be slow, labored, and focused on the belly. This is very common with low energy emotional states such as despair, hopelessness, and self-doubt. In these cases you’ll notice a benefit if you breath more from the chest, letting your chest expand fully as you inhale and consciously taking a few breaths at a faster rate. Just a few: you don’t want to end up hyperventilating.

We all “tell ourselves stories” by talking to ourselves internally. The stories we tell ourselves have a big effect on our mental states, and often the effect that they have is rather negative. We might assume that a particular mental state that has recently arrived is going to be a permanent feature of our lives, and start telling ourselves, “Oh no. Here it is again. I’m going to experience this forever, and life isn’t worth living. I must be really useless to deserve this.” We can learn to tell ourselves different stories. Nothing lasts forever. Things always change. Saying that we’re useless is a ridiculously sweeping statement — we’re all bad at some things, good at others. We can remind ourselves of the fact that all human beings have the potential to learn and to change. Reminding ourselves of these things has an effect. These more positive thoughts may not make an instant difference, but they do have effects and will shape our future experiences.

Changing the content of our thoughts is one thing, but we also need to change our relation to our thoughts and feelings. It’s been shown that those most at risk of depression are people who have difficulty in seeing that thoughts and feelings are mental events rather than the self. When we over-identify with our thoughts and feelings, there is a tendency to “feel bad about feeling bad”. Buddhist practice encourages us to develop an attitude of witnessing and observing our mental states, and of ceasing to regard them as “ourselves”.

This does not mean that we should disown our feelings, try to cut off from them, or stop trying to experience them. The feelings that we have are real, and they are part of us. But they do not define us, because we are more than our feelings. And particular feelings come and go, and therefore they can’t be seen as being a fixed and defining part of us.

If we embrace this insight then we’ll feel freer to simply experience uncomfortable emotions and thoughts without being dragged down by them into a depressive state. This insight is probably the single most potent meditative tool that we have in dealing with depression.

Comments

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Comment from Ian
Time: September 24, 2008, 11:28 am

I wanted to thank you for writing this. As I was reading, I took note of myself sitting, slouching, and barely breathing. When I straightened up, took a few deep breaths, I laughed nervously as I felt the internal change. Neil Walsh wrote once “we are all lead to the truths for which we are prepared,” and that statement has always resonated with me. Keep up the good (and much needed) work.

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Comment from Irene
Time: January 22, 2009, 2:56 pm

I have trouble meditating at times precisely because I suffer from a condition which causes curvature of my spine and a slumped posture – ankylosing spondylitis. I have sometimes wondered if there was a physiological link between this and other arthritic conditions and depression. Before I was diagnosed (some 12 years ago), I remember experiencing a very difficult sensation in my back when meditating which made it very difficult to continue sitting. It’s hard to describe but almost like the deepest itch you can imagine. The sensation carries a lot of energy. No one else I spoke to seemed to relate to experience, including my meditation teacher.

I now meditate more rarely but wish to revive the practice especially since I have been struggling with some things in my life recently which have resulted in my suffering depression. I no longer meditate with a straight back but find if I allow my back to find its own comfort level then I may not experience this very difficult sensation although sometimes I cannot avoid it.

I have added this comment here due to your comments on posture. Any advice or comments from others who have physical conditions or limitations which similarly affect their ability to meditate would be welcome. Thanks to all who have already written here. I have found much on this site which is encouraging and will assist me in my practice.

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Comment from Ian
Time: January 22, 2009, 3:38 pm

I too have posture problems — part of my spine is fused due to a collapsed disc. Prior to the surgery, sitting erect indian-style was just painful. Now, it’s all but impossible! The good news is that meditation, at least for me, is just as effective sitting in a chair or lying on the floor as it is in lotus. The path to enlightenment, I feel, is more about the practice than the position. Just because ‘life is suffering’ doesn’t mean we have to torture ourselves. :)

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Comment from Linda
Time: January 4, 2010, 9:46 pm

Thank you Ian! That was good to hear, because I also sometimes have trouble with the upright seated position . . .

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Comment from Denis
Time: September 2, 2010, 6:11 pm

Sitting to meditate is often accompanied with pain between my
shoulders, and ringing in the ears, other painfull sensations come and go but these two sensations are there constantly. What would be the best attitude to have about this?
focusing only on the breath is difficult while these other distractions
dominate my being.
Any thoughts?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 3, 2010, 2:06 pm

Hi Denis,

The pain between your shoulders is probably postural. Usually it comes from not having your hands supported high enough. Try using a cushion or scarf to get them at navel height or above.

The ringing in your ears sounds like tinnitus, which you’re possibly noticing more during meditation. I’d suggest seeing your doctor. I’d also suggest just noticing the sound without trying to fight it or push it away. You can notice the breath and also the sound. You may find there are times that you “tune the sound out,” but don’t aim to do this — just let it happen naturally.

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Comment from AD
Time: February 2, 2012, 10:18 pm

Thanks for this great article.

I meditate a bit everyday and I came to the realization that thoughts and emotions aren’t the same and yet they are linked.
Although, at this moment I feel in a sort of confused state, where at times my own thoughts show a very odd contradictory nature.
For example if I consciously tell myself “I’m healthy” in order to feel good and positive, sometimes a second thought comes out of fear or anxiety saying “I’m actually sick”. Almost like thoughts having a fight or testing myself to their own dissonant nature.
I tried to meditate on this by repeating myself “I’m black, I’m white. I’m male, I’m female…etc” and get a feeling of the duality, but I don’t know if it’s a good practice. It’s certainly interesting to observe the dual nature of reality and our thoughts, but I hope I’m not pushing myself too much.

Overall I’m experiencing an unclear separation between the true me, the one who experiences, and my own thoughts and mental chatter. It gets frustrating at times and I don’t know which to embrace or how to make peace with this state.

What’s your opinion on this?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 3, 2012, 11:37 am

Yes thoughts and emotions are intimately connected. Our emotions affect the kinds of thoughts we have, and our thoughts shape our emotions. That’s what you’ve been experiencing with your experiments.

Affirmations are a current fad, but it’s been demonstrated that for many people affirmations like “I am healthy” backfire. The reason is that when these statements don’t mesh with the facts, they are lies, and you know it, and so you feel uneasy about lying, are reminded of the uncomfortable fact that you’re ill, and feel worse! The dissonance you’re experiencing may be moral unease. Of course if you are actually healthy, then it’s just self-doubt talking.

It’s better to say something like “I’m fundamentally healthy” which is true even if you have a cold, or even a chronic condition that’s not going to get better. If you have a cold, then you’re saying “Sure, I’m ill, but my system can shake this off.” If you have a chronic illness, then you’re saying something more like, “Sure, I have a bad back, but I’m focusing on the fact that the rest of my body — legs, arms, heart, lungs, senses — are basically doing their job.”

As for “the true me,” according to the earliest Buddhist teachings there’s no such thing, but let’s not go there. It’s enough just to recognize that your experiences are not you, without getting caught up in wondering who you actually are, or — and this is crucial — without in any way thinking that “you” don’t exist.

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Comment from AD
Time: February 3, 2012, 11:49 am

That’s a fantastic answer. Thanks a lot!

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