Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Meditation and Depression

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When not to use meditation

Although meditation can be very helpful in relieving depression or in preventing depression from arising, the act of focusing inwards can actually heighten feelings of despair. I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.

It’s also best even if you are feeling mildly depressed that you try to find a teacher with whom you can work closely. By this I mean someone that you can have close to daily contact with, either by phone or email. Even when someone’s not depressed it can be challenging to learn new skills, and the depressive tendency to focus on what’s wrong can lead to feelings that the meditation isn’t working, even when it is. You may need an experienced coach to help you work with your frustration.

Although such opportunities are unfortunately very rare, an experienced meditation teacher who is on hand to give you step by step guidance can probably help you even when you are experiencing severe depression.

One woman recently wrote to me saying that she’d experienced profound anxiety and depression all her life, and that she’d recently tried meditating with the help of a CD. She went on to say, “I feel great when I have done about 20 minutes of meditation but it lasts maybe an hour or so then I feel just the same. Am I hopeless at meditation? Am I doing something wrong?”

This kind of response is not unusual when someone is depressed. A lifetime of mental habit is shifting, but only for an hour. Rather than focus on the positive (things are changing) she ends up homing in on the negative (it only lasts for an hour). This is where a teacher is indispensable, because without guidance the benefits of meditation can end up being ignored, while a positive is turned into a negative.

As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!”

I agree, and if meditation seems to be making things worse, then I would advise you to stop immediately.

However, I have worked with several extremely depressed students who have benefited from meditation when they have had constant guidance and feedback from an experienced teacher to make sure that they are using meditative techniques in a helpful way.

Comments

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Comment from Loes
Time: December 26, 2008, 3:59 pm

I would advice anyone with serious depression or other mental turbulence to not go at it alone! You always need a friend, teacher… a refuge! Meditation done wrong can unravel you, throw you into groundlessness.

Any teacher will tell you that to meditate to achieve anything is a senseless activity anyway… Meditation is not a pill. And you can not learn proper meditation from a book. Just like you can’t learn how to swim or ride a bike from a book or CD alone.

But on the other hand, if you know how to meditate, and you know your illness, it is always good to meditate. You can just observe your mind turning against itself, and see it fall apart. It is very useful. How incredible real and serious it appears, and than how ridiculous and absurd it actually is when you look at it later. I am not saying it is easy… not all… it is amazing how you keep falling into the same traps. But it is extremely useful to get to know your crazy mind (especially if you have to live with it anyway… I am a long-time sufferer from severe depression and anxiety)

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Comment from Linda
Time: January 4, 2010, 9:36 pm

I am wondering if anyone can recommend an experienced meditation teacher who would be on hand to give me guidance as needed. I am currently in counselling with a gentle, warm and buddhist practicing therapy, but I can only converse with her in our 50 minute sessions, weekly or less. It would also be wonderful if this person was female, and local to me (Greater Portland, ME, USA area), so that I could meet them face to face sometimes.
Thank you~

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 4, 2010, 10:36 pm

Sure. I have a friend, Dharmasuri, who teaches at Nagaloka Buddhist Center. You can find them at http://www.nagalokabuddhistcenter.org. She’s a lovely woman, although she’s in Georgia for a few months. I believe Karunasara, a woman who happens to be a neighbor of mine, may be teaching at Nagaloka as well. I’d suggest contacting the center through their website.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Sarah
Time: March 22, 2010, 3:50 pm

Hi Bodhipaksa,

This was a really interesting and helpful post.

At the moment I am suffering from what I think is depression, and I have had anxiety problems for as long as I can remember! I also have OCD. I have been meditating for just over a year, and in the last few months have had a fairly regular practice.

I can see / feel that I have got some benefits from it, but it is true to say that I have come closer to my depression and negative feelings than ever before, and this has been very frightening at times. There have been times where I was scared I might do something awful, to myself or others.

It is very, very difficult to say whether this is caused by my external circumstances (which haven’t been easy recently – financial and job-related stress, as well as living in a foreign country away from family and friends), my underlying genetic / biochemical problems, or the meditation. Probably a combination of the first two, somewhat exacerbated by the third.

So – I was wondering what you would advise me to do. I have moved back to the UK to live with family and be around friends, and my financial / professional situation is looking up. The depression, anxiety, OCD and severe concerns about meditation persist.

Do you know of any teachers in my area (north east England – Teesside, more specifically) who would be prepared to take me on as a student? I don’t mind if it’s through the FWBO or other groups, as long as the person is a very experienced meditator and teacher.

If you have any other advice about my situation I would be very grateful. I don’t really want to have to give up on meditation, as I am on a fairly intense “spiritual” search and in Buddhism have found some sense. I’m just not sure what to do for the best at the moment.

Best wishes and thank you in advance,

Sarah (not my real name)

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Comment from Sunada
Time: March 24, 2010, 4:34 pm

Dear Sarah,
I’m sorry to hear of all your difficulties, and at the same time impressed with your determination. That more than anything else will get you through this. I don’t know if you consider taking a course online through Wildmind a viable option. I’m the teacher of those courses. You’d be able to discuss your practice with me via a public discussion forum, plus you’d have one opportunity to write me a private email.

I really don’t know of specific teachers to recommend otherwise, but I can refer you to the FWBO website listing of centers in the UK, here: http://www.fwbo.org/contacts/addresses-uk.html. If you find a center near you, I’m sure they could help point you further.

I wish you all the best in finding something that will be helpful to you.
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Kyria
Time: November 8, 2011, 7:04 am

I have suffered from clinical depression and anxiety in the past, and have also been meditating for around five years. I can say that in my experience, meditating during an episode can definitely make things worse. I find that it can feed negative feelings, and also push one into an introverted and ‘spacey’ head space.

By comparison, meditating when well has only ever brought me benefit.

I think that it is important to really observe whether meditation is helping or harming in these situations, and have the courage to stop. My brother is a Buddhist monk, and his abbot recommends physical exercise, spending time with friends, and ‘wholesome activities’ when depression is severe – and ‘not too much meditation’ – none if it is making things worse. I do find, however, that giving myself Metta through the day is really helpful when depressed. What have other people found re: Metta, mindfulness and mental illness?

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Comment from Cereszal
Time: February 20, 2012, 10:30 pm

I had been depressed for a long time but i’ve managed to get it under control. Recently, i had started meditating again and the depression got worse. This isn’t the first time it has happened to me. So i’m quite confused as i don’t beat myself up during meditation. Instead, i fill myself with light and love and understanding. So the last thing i would think is to get depressed due to meditating. It doesn’t happen immediately after meditation but after a while and it stays constant. Sometimes, it can lead to suicidal thinking which is not where i go to usually.
I know for sure meditation isn’t linked to depression and it had even once helped lessen my depression. How can i get it not to worsen my depression this time since i had already managed to heal a lot of it?

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Comment from Loes
Time: February 21, 2012, 8:41 am

I would seek advice from a teacher. Meditation in depression is very hard and has so many pitfalls because depression is very crafty in turning things nasty. And in always trying to escape from having to experience depression. Maybe the light and love and understanding are used that way. Wanting to heal where as the meditation is about sitting with it (an impossible task…)

For me it helps to anchor myself by focusing more on (neutral) physical sensations (breath and heart link right into anxiety at those moments in there, although there are very helpful breathing techniques to bring that lower into your abdomen), feel your feet or feeling your butt on the cushion and take that as the object of your meditation. Make sure your back is straight.

Although I have also had times when I was just rolled up in a ball of misery, surrendering and crying out to Buddha’s and teachers to please help me, guide me. And it always helped, not right away and not in the way expected, but I always found later something had moved. Praying really helps me, but I guess that only came for me after having trained and understood the meaning of devotion a bit.

I find that a very precious and helpful ‘replacement/alternative’ of meditation is listening to teachings on buddha nature, as well as powerful teachings on the absolute. I can’t always grasp them, but the voice and energy of my teacher do inevitably create some space between me and my depression and can serve very well as an inspiration for meditation.

(for now you’d probably should stay away from the ones about karma, precious human birth, and perhaps even bodhichitta, because your depression is very crafty on using these as a tool to punish yourself with!)

Many short meditations through the day are usually better than one long one. And personally reading/listening to Pema Chodron especially always makes me unworry some of my worries.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 21, 2012, 12:36 pm

Hi, Cereszal.

It’s very hard to know what’s going on, and it might take a lot of work with a therapist to get to the bottom of it. The kind of thing that can happen sometimes is that we get into a good state when meditating, but our overall sense of wellbeing is dependent upon our experiencing that state. When we face some difficulty, and we no longer feel calm and happy, we react to the change, and our mental states plummet. I’m not saying this is what’s going on, but it’s the kind of thing that can happen. I’ve been there myself. Just to give you an example of how to deal with this sort of thing, it’s important to cultivate not just happiness, but a state of equanimity that allows us to handle life’s ups and downs, neither becoming elated by the ups nor despondent about the downs. And one thing that can help with this is a sense of self-compassion toward the discomfort and suffering that we experience when something pleasant slips away from us.

If you’d like to write to me further, then you can simply reply to the notification email (if you signed up for notifications to replies to your post) or use the contact form. Either of those will reach me.

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Comment from Dave
Time: May 15, 2013, 4:17 am

I am wondering if anyone can recommend a centre in/near Sydney, Australia. My partner suffers major clinical depression and often uses meditation in an attempt to ease her suffering. She is desperate for any help she can find.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 15, 2013, 9:44 am

Hi, Dave.

Your partner would probably benefit from a course in MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. If you Google those you’ll hopefully find a program in your area. The only meditation center I know of is the Sydney Buddhist Center (http://www.sydneybuddhistcentre.org.au/), which is part of the same Buddhist community I’m a member of. But not all Buddhists understand clinical depression, so that may or may not be a good option for her. You might want to talk to them and see if anyone teaching there has experience in the mental healthy field.

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Comment from Ben
Time: August 2, 2013, 7:27 pm

Some helpful comments here.
I am a novice meditator with mild depression and low self-esteem. I find that sometimes meditation can ruin my day. Other times it makes me euphoric.
Yesterday I did it and felt like I was being sucked physically into a vortex – quite disturbing. This made me suddenly come out of the meditation with elevated heartbeat. It was like the exact opposite of observing my thoughts. It was more like something grabbed me and pulled me deeper. Almost like a separate entity did it, although I am not superstitious. This most extreme reaction has happened to me 3 times before, but not often.
I am a strong believer in the healing power of mindfulness and I know I will eventually learn to enjoy my life. However, sometimes I wonder if meditation is the best thing right now. I tried prozac twice but I don’t take it now because I am sure it is a placebo with side affects and not good for the brain.
Good luck to all depressed people here trying to help themselves :-)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 3, 2013, 12:20 pm

Hi, Ben.

I notice that you talk about “meditation” almost as if it’s something separate from you that’s doing something to you. I’d suggest talking about “meditating” instead. Meditating is something you do, so the question changes from whether this “thing” called “meditation” is a good thing to whether the way you’re meditating is helpful or unhelpful.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from nischaie
Time: February 27, 2014, 8:58 am

Hi..
Whenever i meditate,after a couple of days i start feeling depressed and slow.so i have many a times begun but later left meditation.i have a past history of prophylactic lithium therapy for bipolar disorder..really confused..please guide ..

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 27, 2014, 4:44 pm

Hi, Nischaie.

I really can’t give advice in this case. If you have a tendency to experience depression then I’d strongly suggest meditating under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Good luck!
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Rina
Time: March 6, 2014, 11:56 am

I can also talk from experience – have a long history of depression with a very severe and acute bout of depression recently. Problem is that in the area where I live people are staunch Christians with very few Buddhists around and no teachers to talk of. So I have to choose: either I learn to meditate with the depression or not at all.
What I have found is that listening to a gentle and skillful teacher online works wonders when I feel particularly low. Another wonder is guided meditation.
There are incredible recordings available online. Try Audiodharma. One of the many good teachers on the site will be right for you.

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