I have a friend called Joan who suffers from clinical depression. I’ve noticed she has a tendency to feel guilty about being depressed. It’s as if she is, at times, unable to accept that there is a disability that is somewhat beyond her control. Can recognizing and accepting this reduce guilt and therefore reduce one element of the depression? I think it can.
A lot of the work that I do with beginners in meditation involves helping them to avoid “beating themselves up” over perceived failures. There seems to be a strong tendency in many people to take an already unsatisfactory situation (I’m distracted) and make it worse by ascribing blame to oneself (I can’t meditate because I’m useless). Much of my meditation coaching involves being encouraging to my students so that they give themselves a break from this self-flagellation.
With practice, it is possible to unlearn the habit of beating oneself up, and to learn to be more patient and not heap on the guilt. I think that this is one major way in which meditation can help to ameliorate depression – or at least the aspect of depression that is “self-imposed” through guilt and self-blame.
I emphasize in my meditation teaching that we have to learn to let go of harsh judgments about ourselves. For example when we realize that we’ve been distracted in meditation it’s important to let go of any tendency to criticize (since that’s just another form of distraction) and to bring our awareness back to the breath with kindness, patience, and persistence. The more we practice doing this, the more automatic it will become for us to deal with our perceived shortcomings in this kind of way.
I think that the guidance of an experienced teacher is important here – we need someone who can help us to see what patterns of behavior are helpful and which are not, and who can also help us find new and more creative ways of responding to our experience.