Helpful and unhelpful ways to meditate

Wood changing seasons from summer to winter or vice-versa

Wood changing seasons from summer to winter or vice-versa

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.

11 Comments. Leave new

  • Kevin Griffith
    March 11, 2008 7:02 pm

    I have been meditating with the FWBO for 20 years and am currently suffering a major depression which appears to be ‘chemical’ in origin. I am grateful for you pages and wonder if you can recommend a book or tape to assist me deal with my depression. Thanks.

  • Hi Kevin,

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience with depression.

    There’s a book by Cheri Huber called “Being Present In The Darkness” that you might find useful.

    It might be worth checking out Vidyamala and Sona’s Breathworks CDs. They’re more to do with dealing with physical pain, but depression is a kind of emotional pain so there’s a lot of overlap.

    And with all modesty I’d also suggest my first CD, “Guided Meditations for Calmness, Awareness, and Love.” Sometimes just having another voice speaking to us that comes from a different place can help lift us out of the darkness a little.

    But it’s really hard to say what would be most useful. When we’re depressed we can end up making unhelpful comparisons so that even a guided meditation can be an excuse to beat ourselves up. So these are just suggested tools for you to try out and see whether they help.

    Take care,

  • daniel ogilvy
    August 6, 2008 5:43 am

    I have experienced depression for many years now. Sometimes I wonder if it comes from the society we live in and the pressures it puts on us. We are in so many ways encouraged to be selfish and always get the best deal for ourselves.
    The famous line of ” think more about what you can do for your country than what your country can do for you” has a really healthy ring to it. I was very much a part of this country during the 2nd world war and those who grew up with it (now in their 80s) seem to have lead very positive and useful lives. Maybe we need to re-introduce this concept back into education and get our youth doing whatever they can for their community. In that way perhaps we can minimise depression. That, of course, is prevention, and this site is looking at cure, but maybe if we could set up residential volunteering and a way to have people feeling useful – really useful, then we may start to grow well again.

  • Hi, I am a Buddhist and a survivor of depression. I found “salvation” finally not through buddhism but through understanding depressiona as a disease, Peter Kramer’s book Against Depression was critical to this. Here are my thoughts on depression

    Major depression is always chemical.

    The distinction between situational and biological depression is artificial.

    Our genes, neurochemicals, hormones, environment and behavior are integrated, an “ecosystem” if you will.

    If you are experiencing major depression then you are experiencing a physical disease, one which actively damages your endocrine, neural, cardiovascular and hormonal systems.

    Under these circumstances you should seek treatment from a Dr (psychiatrist), and yes Please take medicine if it helps.

  • I have been suffering from major depression and anxiety for most of my life. As I do not respond well and even adverse to some medications, and various therapies and hospitalizations have had only impermanent and meager results, this disease has thoroughly debilitated my entire life and I have been on disability for over 10 years.

    Sure it’s chemical. Everything is chemical. All our thoughts are just neurons firing (or not) firing away. I am not opposed to medication, but I have been around the block long enough to now that they do not work for many people. Buddhism/meditation has been my “salvation” and continues to be so. It has given me insights into the workings of my mind that no psychiater/psychologist/nurse ever could. And it works! As a depressed person, no one knows the truth better than that it is all a matter of perception in the end… and that the suffering of finding oneself thoroughly stuck in a claustophobic ego without even being able to feel any connection with others is horrible…

    So what I really miss is the practice of lojong! Exchanging oneself for others can really help expanding that cramped, painful mind. Mindfulness is very helpful, especially with the help of a ‘body scan’ but very hard to do when the mind is very violent against itself. Oddly enough I frequently feel I don’t “deserve” any loving kindness or revolt against it when I am really in the dark zone. It is absurd, but my mind is so turned against myself the only peace it will allow me to think of is the thought of self-destruction. So metta practice is better for me when I am a little bit in a better place.

    But even when I am extremely angry at myself because I am stuck feeling sorry for my worthless self I can still expand my heart by reaching out to all the other beings being stuck in depression, uncapable of escaping being narrow-minded though longing to “be good”, and pray that my depression may be enough, that this suffering may absorb all their suffering right now, so that they may find happiness, freedom, space.

    And visualizing all these miserable creatures receiving all my happiness and being freed from their heavy load of depression, a little spark of joy can just crack open that prison… I am not alone. My heart is not dead. I feel for others. I am not a horrible person. My depression is a delusion, black clouds covering my buddha nature.

    So that helps. And listening/watching/reading teachings. Even if I can’t focus. Eventually something will hook me. Remind me. Often I just gaze at an image of the Buddha and remember myself that I am loved, no matter what.

    • Loes – Would you consider looking at IFS – internal family systems – which works with parts as there is actually a destructive part in many people and it can take over. This may sound weird right now but think about all the therapies based on the inner critic and inner child work and expand that to include any kind of protector parts within our minds that guard our wounded parts. This is evidence based therapy that is non pathologising. We all have parts and we all have wounds that need healing. The therapy is meditation based and you can do it yourself by listening to the audible books by Dr Richard Schwartz. I wish you the best.

  • One of the most insidious aspects of depression (and I speak from experience) is “mental paralysis.” When you are deeply depressed, it is very difficult to muster the energy to do anything to help yourself. And if you do manage to sit and try to meditate, it is very difficult to focus. Really, all you want to do is curl up in a ball and die.
    I guess this argues for moving quickly at the first signs of an impending crash. But does anyone have useful ideas for using meditation when things have gotten really bad?

  • I know Matt’s experience of mental paralysis. I have found it helps just to close my eyes and be aware of my breathing. It’s a very simple kind of breath meditation. I’m not doing anything, I’m just trying to remain in the present moment and carry on existing. This seems to have a gradual calming effect. Maybe because it temporarily applies the brakes to the runaway train of negative thoughts.
    I’m not saying this is the solution but it may be the start of something better. If it just helps me to get moving again then it’s worth it.

  • I have a photo of Manjusri with a very beautiful, loving gaze. Just looking at that reminds me that I am not alone and that even I have Buddha nature, even when it is hiding behind so many deep dark clouds and paralyzing confusion.

    And I have been curled up in a ball many times, shaking, shivering, moaning. At those moments I usually just turn to prayer, calling out for help, despair. As you can imagine fervent prayers comes very naturally in those moments…

    And somehow that always helped somehow, not immediately or with a big ball of light and angels singing, but more that I find, later in the day/night that often the heaviness seems to be lifted a bit.

    My teacher once said that the wisdom of the Buddha’s is so all-encompassing that they truly understand everything, and that gives me some comfort when I understand nothing. I guess it is a matter of faith for me in those dark days and nights.

    I can visualize being held and loved. And I guess at those moments there is nothing to focus on, it is just crying out from the rawest places of your heart, knowing that there is something that is larger than your depression.

    But it is something I have been gradually able to do, it is a faith and trust that gradually grew. I guess I have had ‘the luck’ to have suffered so many depressive episodes that a part of my logical self is now aware how deceitful and untrue this depression is.

    Unfortunately that doesn’t change how absolutely truthful and hopeless and desperate my thoughts and emotions are when I go through it, logic doesn’t really cut through such thick emotions, but it just gives me a tiny piece to hold on to.

    Just like knowing people who have suffered dearly from loved ones committing suicide helped me to not do so myself, even though I could not understand how loved ones could possibly love me and I was convinced that the world would be a better place without me.

    But when it gets so bad you should not even try to focus, as it is almost impossible. Plus chances are that you just want to ‘use’ meditation to get your f*k mind to shut up. (Although I must say my focus on feeling depressed is absolute one pointed…) I think it is just great if you can even have a few moments of greater awareness.

    It is my experience you need things to ground yourself. So at those points body scan or other more physical ways of meditation are better for me than focusing on something so ‘light’ as my breath. I can also just focus on the feeling of my butt on the chair of cushion or soles of my feet, very concrete and neutral things.

    Mantra’s are also an option if you have a good connection with that. Listening to teachings, even with a half ear more listening to the atmosphere is something that also helps me.

    Sometimes I just sit in front of my altar with many blankets tightly wrapped around me (helps me feel secure/held) and just cry. It helps me to know that that is a very safe way to cry and just let these emotions pour out, withing being/feeling judged.

    So I have developed a whole tool bag over the years, sometimes this works, sometimes I need something else. And the strength and sharpness of those tools is something that I can only work on on my better days.

    When I am in deep, it is already great progress if I can just bring myself to face the next moment. And sometimes that also requires a lot of distraction, rather than meditation. And asking for help, take my medicines, or support from the Sangha.

    In general it is safe to assume that depression can take every teaching and turn it into a stick to beat yourself with. So be aware of that.

    Depression is not the time to dive into teachings about karma (because surely, we must have been some sort of Hitler in our past lives to feel like this, depression will whisper), it is the time to work with Buddha nature. Knowing that on the absolute level everything is okay. That you are okay. That absolutely nothing can harm or even put a scratch on your inherent Buddha nature.

    That all this is changing, and will change (although I know it doesn’t feel like it ever will change or that you ever felt different, but remember, when you are depressed you are in a thick sticky tar of confusion and pain, you can’t trust what you feel must be real)

    Leave the hard work for when you feel stronger and even more important: clearer!

    I have found a great friend in this text:

    My latest great practice need is to be humble, and work with being grateful. I thought after all those years of being mentally ill there was no pride left in me, until I realized how many things actually make me feel incredibly humiliated.

    Tons of anger, aggression, jealousy have been sailing by these past week, tough to admit, hard for me personally to work with. But taking it in as a practice, rather than as something I am forced to swallow helps me too. I can’t control what arises in my mind, but I can learn to control how I respond to it.

  • Why would you suggest against manufacturing positive emotions? i know it can feel artificial but think that it its no more artificial than taking medicine. Medicine derived happiness may not feel as artificial because it wasnt the individual doing the work but as soon as they stop the meds it will be clear as day to them. self manufacture can path the way for real happiness i believe. it strengthens the glands responsible for releasing feel good chemicals into ones body and trains the mind to be positive. i feel chemical imbalance is similar to muscle imbalance that causes disease. With proper mental training the body can be brought back into balance. That is what ive found through my qigong practice. Practice to be how u want to be, then one day you will be it :)

    • I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t set up the conditions for positive emotions to arise. That’s exactly what we’re doing in meditation. I’m suggesting that it’s the “trying” to make positive emotions happen that’s unhelpful, since this involves a kind of grasping after happiness that in the long term causes more suffering. One of the most painful sits in any meditator’s life is the first you do just after you’ve had your first mind-blowingly awesome meditation. You sit down and try to repeat the experience, and find that you spiral into a pit of despair, because you’re trying to grasp after an experience that grasping can’t actually create.


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