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.