When not to use meditation

Wood Carved BuddhaAlthough 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.

63 Comments. Leave new

  • 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)

  • 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~

    • Sure. I have a friend, Dharmasuri, who teaches at Nagaloka Buddhist Center. You can find them at https://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,

  • 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)

    • 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: https://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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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 (https://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.

  • 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 :-)

    • 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,

  • 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 ..

    • 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!

  • 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.

  • Depression runs in the family; so does suicidal ideation. And yet I am a teacher/facilitator/inspirational speaker that a lot of people look up to. That makes it very difficult for me to be public about any of my own problems, and even more difficult to find a teacher (shouldn’t I know all this already? After all, I teach all about changing your thoughts, courage, authenticity, etc.). Just sitting down to try to meditate makes me want to cry, yet my old mentor says that I should just wallow in the pain and get rid of it. Not helpful.

    What do we do when we teach and are so public and our work is so consuming that we have no safe space to be vulnerable?

    • I think the best type of teaching comes from us, as teachers, honestly discussing what we’re working with and how we’re working with it. Teaching that comes from wanting to pretend we have all the answers isn’t the most helpful. It’s not useless, but it doesn’t touch lives in the same way as honest communication.

  • Can you suggest teacher in sydney, Australia.Suffering with deep depression and thoughts of self harm. regular meditator from many years.

    • I’m afraid I don’t have any personal connections in Sydney, Meera who have the kind of expertise you need. I do know of meditation teachers there, but I doubt they have experience in working with depression and thoughts of self-harm. You might want to look for a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has much in common with meditation and Buddhism.

      All the best,

  • Hi, I have always toyed with taking up meditation and have been to one session at a local run meditation centre. I enjoyed it. My mum died 6yrs ago and I have battled with coming to terms with it. I slip in and out of depression and right now I’m probably feeling lower than I have ever felt, so looked towards getting back into it. I was all set to until reading this and now I am really confused, I was expecting meditation to be my saviour the doorway to a more calm existence but I’m scared as I hadn’t realised it actually could be harmful for me. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but I don’t want to trigger them if I pursue meditation, should I think twice?

    • No, I think you’re fine, Kathryn. It’s only when people are very seriously depressed that meditation might be unhelpful — and even then, perhaps not for everyone.

  • I meditated and did tai chi for over thirty yrs and stopped because of life conditions, illness, pain, depression, lack of time or space, but miss it. I am old, disabled and in pain. I have little or no money. My volunteer work constantly disrupted chances to find a space to be still, and my volunteer work is as important to me as breathing. It is perhaps valid that one should not meditate when depressed, or should seek a teacher, but many do not have money, and teachers need payment or donations. It’s big business, which was not the way it was traditionally in the past. There also is a paucity of valid, close centers where I live. Basically what I am getting from you directly and indirectly is that I’m screwed, which isn’t fair. It would be as if a physician tells you that he won’t see you unless you only have minor medical issues. There’s got to be a way around this. Yes, my depression interfered with meditation, making it so messy that I stopped. But I cannot access a teacher and your advice excludes people like myself. It just doesn’t feel right.

    • Hi, Mary.

      I’m sorry to hear of your difficulties. My advice, though, is just advice. I’m not stopping anyone from doing anything, but simply giving my opinion. What I said what “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.” So if you’re not suffering from intense depression, and aren’t having suicidal thoughts, then go right ahead.

      I did also say it’s “best,” if you have mild depression, to work with a teacher, but we don’t have to only do things when conditions are ideal. And anyway, I’m spending an entire morning writing to people (yourself included) who are neither paying me nor making donations. You’re already availing yourself of a teacher :)

  • I just want to say thank you. Thank you, thank you…

  • I have been doing meditation for 3-4 mnths but had anxiety attack recently then I realized prehaps I was doing it wrong can you please help me out I don’t know where I am going with this

    • Hi, Mani.

      You don’t say if you’ve had panic attacks before, or whether this was your first time. If you are prone to them, it may be that you should start with something like walking meditation, and then gradually introduce sitting meditation. If this was your first time, then it may have just been a freak incident. But if it recurs, then again I’d suggest trying walking meditation in order to become more grounded in the body, and then perhaps trying lovingkindness meditation while walking, and then gradually introducing shorter sits. The trouble with panic is that it can become a habit — the anticipation of a panic attack can induce one… Moving to walking meditation might help in breaking the habit.

  • Thanks for your advice it was actually first time I had this attack I will try walking meditation as you adviced

  • Anxiety attacks can happen when practicing meditation. I have experienced them several times myself. From my own personal experience with this, I believe the primitive, emotional, unconcous part of the mind can become alarmed during meditation. Possibly by a disturbing thought, or simply by the sensation of letting go – of surrendering. It reacts by attempting to regain control, causing adrenalin to kick in and this in turn, triggers anxiety. No idea if this is scientifically correct, just my own experience. I wish good luck to everyone here who is sufferring depression and persevering with their meditation practice.

  • Open eyes can be a distraction in walking meditation can you suggest something else?

    • Doing walking meditation with your eyes closed isn’t recommended, Mani :) [Just joking!]

      In what way is it a distraction to have your eyes open during walking meditation? People have been doing this practice for thousands of years.

  • Mind gets a bit confused while watching things in front and feeling the feet and it ends up being blank and stressed afterwards.

  • I just started regularly meditating a few weeks ago, and I found that it helps and then it doesn’t. I’ve recently started taking medication for OCD/Panic Disorder/Anxiety. My psychiatrist hasn’t given me an exact diagnosis, but my panic comes from having suicidal ideation and thoughts of self-harm. I’ve never experienced these things before going to graduate school, so they’ve been a really big challenge. And I was nearly raped a few months ago, which made everything worse. I’m trying meditation, and I’ve noticed that, while meditating, I experience more anxiety/suicidal ideation. I’m wondering if I should just push through and keep doing it–despite these thoughts–because I’ve NEVER been depressed in 25 years of living, or if I should stop. These comments have been very helpful, and they make me feel like I’m not alone! XOXO

    • Hi, Ann.

      You don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing. I’d very much encourage you to do some form of lovingkindness meditation along with whatever you’re currently doing. And if anxious or suicidal thoughts arise, step back from them and recognize that they’re just stories that a frightened part of your mind is creating. Sometimes when I have catastrophizing thoughts (for example a couple of weeks ago I had a cancerous growth removed from inside my ear, and there was a tendency to create stories around that) I’d find it useful to say, “Yeah, right!” in a wry, skeptical, kind of a way — just to let the anxious part of my mind know that I’m not prepared to buy into its stories.

  • Yeah ,It is true .From my experience i can say ,meditating during a period of depression can harm you.

  • Hi
    I think I might be suffering from mild depression or
    Biopolar and I can get quite neurotic at time. It’s difficult for me to express myself and I’m struggling to find out what it is The cause me to feel so unhappy although I know I have a lot of undealt issues it’s difficult to get to the root of it and probably need. Therapist for that.I’ve been getting bursts of violent outrage where I’m slapping and pushing my boyfriend because I just get so upset with him and it scares me just as it scares me that I want to end my life. I get good days but the bad oness eare much more.
    I thought. Of starting meditation but am now unsure and think I should rather do it with a teacher do you have someone to recommend for me in Cape Town. Please.

    • Hi, Ansie.

      If you’re only suffering from mild depression, I think you should go ahead and get started. I’d recommend beginning with lovingkindness practice, and then maybe a couple of weeks later, learning mindfulness of breathing.

      As you’re learning lovingkindness meditation, I’d suggest that you become more aware of the pain you’re experiencing around the heart and solar plexus. Regard that as a part of you that is suffering, and send it your love.

      And please stop hitting your boyfriend. I know you’re in pain, but domestic violence is not a way to do anything but make your problems worse, and it’s unfair to him. May you both be well and happy.

  • I feel as though I have meditated incorrectly for too long and it has caused me to feel as though I am in a detached state with high anxiety and feeling as though I have no thoughts which is almost unbearable to live with. My time perception is completely warped and I don’t know what to do anymore. Has anyone heard of this happening or know of any way to get my mental clarity back!?

    • Hi, Jay.

      I’m sorry to hear about the detached state in which you find yourself. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you were doing in your practice.

      I’d highly recommend a few things:

      • Working more on heart-based meditations like the cultivation of lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciation. (Some of our online events work with these practices.)
      • Exercise, walking meditation, and physical meditations like yoga or tai chi.
      • Doing things that might bring you pleasure, like watching comedy shows or listening to pleasant music.

      I doubt if there’s anything that’s happened to you that’s permanent. It’s just that you’ve over-developed some parts of your brain and left others under-developed.

      Please do feel free to check in with me in order to let me know how you’re getting on.

      All the best,

  • Hello Bodhipaksha.

    First, thank you for being there. I did not think this query needs to be addressed but i am simply grateful that i can share my current state of mind without the need to get into intricate detail.

    The last five years have been spent with the single aim of questioning and understanding things. For this, I am just enormously grateful that my mind has been the friend I need it to be. When finally the point of taking the leap across was reached, I found I did not know how. Then I discovered the technique of Vipassana and knew that for me, it was the way to be.Once again, there was just immense gratitude to have understood what needs to be done.

    There has however been a break in the discipline. The mind has been a beautifully steadfast companion in my journey so far, barring the occasions where I get totally sapped into a situation and unable to then differentiate between the mind and the observer within which then needs that internal talk of an incredulous “really now?”. However this time around,it has been resisting the idea of going back into the discipline of meditation. I have taken it easy so far and let the mind rest but finally I also knew the time has come to enroll into the discipline again. So I applied for another 10-day session of Vipassana.

    The reaction this time took me by surprise but only because my mind has been pretty docile so far,or so I thought :) It’s been almost 3 days now and I have been unable to sleep, much less do anything else. In all this time, the mind has conjured up some enormous amount of fear. I have been observing it patiently but I just need to know it’s going to be okay. All that experiential knowledge of impermanence seems to have flown out of the window. And even as I write this, I know I am feeling better already but then, who knows?

    A few words of advice pls? Thanks much!

    • Hi, Bharati.

      I’ve never experienced a fear that hasn’t resolved itself eventually. Sometimes, in order to get myself through intense periods of anxiety, I’ve fond myself repeating the words of St. Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” Perhaps that will help you too.

  • Thank you for your kindness and your reply. I found the fear was rested as soon as it was addressed loud and clear. The mail sent to you was just the right catalyst :)

    It’s stupendous that you are out there, just letting anyone access your advice.

  • i dont feel like doing anything.i am depressed,i feel that nothing is there in this life.i am doing meditation and not feeling any difference.what should i do now?

    • Hi, Sai Krishna.

      You can’t believe the thoughts that arise when you are depressed. Those thoughts are distorted. Try standing back from them and realizing that they are not the truth, but are stories that some unhappy part of your mind is producing. Be bigger than your thoughts

      Your meditation may not seem like it’s making any difference, but any meditation you do is bringing about change. The change may be simply too gradual for you to notice, or it may even be that you’re not seeing it. I’ve found that many people can’t see the change that’s taking place in them even though other people can. But change is happening.

      You also, like many people who write here, say that you are “meditating,” but you don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing. It may be that you would benefit more from another form or meditation. I recommend for most people a combination of mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation.

  • Hi
    I completed an 8 week course in Mindfulness in May this year, and yes, when I meditate and perhaps an hour later, I feel at peace. In fact, towards the end of my meditation I do the ‘befriending’, that is, I befriend myself, my loved ones and those I am angry about. But the feelings of anger, irritation and general negativity is still very much there. What is further annoying is that I’ve emailed the tutor of the course I took, telling him about this but I’ve received no reply. I guess I have to surmise that because I’ve finished the course, there is no more and I am responsible for myself. What do you advise I should do regarding the negativity. Many thanks.

    • You may well be correct, and that your teacher-student relationship ended at the moment you stopped paying for classes. That’s rather unfortunate.

      I spend many hours offering advice in these comments, and yet very few people choose to support us, which is also unfortunate. So if you find the work I do here helpful, please click here to make a donation.

      Regarding your specific question, there are a couple of things I’d suggest. One is simply to patiently recognize that you’re involved in a long-term process of working with habits which have been with you for almost your whole life. Give it time, and you’ll see change.

      Another suggestion is that you do a dedicated practice of lovingkindness and compassion meditation, rather than doing this as an add-on to the mindfulness practice you’re doing. I suggest to all my students that they alternate mindfulness and metta (lovingkindness) on a daily basis. This provides a more balanced approach. Of course you’re still working on long-term habits!

      There are other practices that are useful as well, such as writing a daily gratitude list, which will help shift your focus toward the positive and away from the things that irritate you.

      Lastly, reflecting on impermanence is helpful. Recognizing that you and everyone you know if only here for a short time tends to put our irritations into perspective. As I like to say, “Life is short: be kind.”

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  • Hello Everyone,

    I wanted to add my experience of depression to this feed in the hopes that it may help others. I have been enrolled in a psychology graduate school program for the past two years that has also involved meditation retreats. We do shamata-vippasana style meditation and we train in cultivating loving-kindness. Part of what we work with is learning to tolerate extreme states of mind.

    This summer I experienced a very strong bout of depression. This runs in my family, but I had only ever experienced feelings like this before when I was dealing with grief and loss. I have however, had anxiety and panic attacks since my teenage years and have found mindfulness and meditation very helpful for stopping anxious thoughts and grounding in the body.

    My depression this summer was a very physical experience. I did not experience a sense of loss of interest or feeling tired and staying in bed. It was more that I felt extremely lost and hopeless, could not sleep or eat, and woke up with a deep deep feeling of dread in my limbs and pain in my chest. I could not focus on anything. In these moments, despite my training, I could not bring any acceptance towards these feelings, and I could not sit still with them. I did a lot of pacing. I also felt pain in my head when I would be thinking anxious thoughts.

    What I did find helpful from my training in meditation is the ability to watch my mind. I had the sense that part of my mind was removed from the depression and able to question its thoughts. However, it was still a deeply scary experience because it felt like everything in my life was terrible and would never be good again.

    I found that in my darkest moments repeating the mantra- I am loved, I will get through this, was helpful. I also used the mantra from metta, May I be peaceful and happy, may I be safe from inner and outer harm, and may I live with ease and well being. It was also indespensible to be around my friends and family. Although, I have been struggling with issues in my family and I think being around them helped to trigger the depression so be mindful of this.

    The first thing I did was to start taking medication. I have found that this can be really helpful when your depression is acute and very physical. For me, it felt like my brain was not “online” in that I could not think or focus properly, and the medication helped me get my sleep and eating back as well as helped my thinking and rational functions come back online. I was able to read books and focus again!

    I also saw a therapist who helped me understand that my depression was triggered by my unresolved grief and family issues that had been unearthed through my studies in psychology and the deep meditation I had been doing. We have started to work on these issues and I have worked with reconnecting with my family members and healing the past and this has definitely been a help.

    I also think that for me depression was a grounding force and I did have a deep need of rest. I did find that even though I was having trouble focusing I was able to watch serialized tv shows and this was actually very distracting and helpful for me. Getting totally absorbed in a story line would give me respite from the feelings and thoughts.

    I do think that diet and exercise help as well, but this may not be possible until some of the acute physical symptoms have lessened. For me I had started taking fish oil, abstaining from alcohol and caffeine and trying to reduce processed carbs and sugar. It was helpful but not immediately.

    I am still in a period of coming out of the depression because the issues that triggered it will take time for me to come to terms with it, but I feel that I am at least on a path and am no longer physically debilitated by the depression. A therapist has been really important in helping me navigate this.

    I wanted to include a detailed account of my experience here because I do believe that depression is very different for each person. I believe that it is usually triggered by underlying issues and those of us that have a strong genetic disposition for depression will need to be more mindful of working with our issues. I do not think that meditation caused my depression, but it was not possible to meditate during acute depression and I am ok with that. I have found that awareness and mindfulness skills that I learned are helpful but meditating itself is not.

    I have found that listening to dharma talks that stress compassion as well as reading about others who have navigated depression is helpful. Parker Palmer is a spiritual teacher that has experienced three major depressive episodes and he has written about his experience.

    Lastly, I do want to say for those of you out there who struggle with thoughts of self-harm and suicide as well as hopelessness, that Dialectical Behavior Therapy has been shown to be really helpful with this. It is a mindfulness- based therapy that teaches distress tolerance skills and is often done in groups. I have heard really great things about it and recently read an op ed in the times about a man who had borderline personality disorder and suicidal ideation all of this life, who after three years of DBT was no longer suicidal.

    For everyone out there who is suffering from depression I have the utmost compassion for you. I know that when you are in it it takes all of your courage to pick yourself up and keep going. You may feel like you don’t give a shit or that you are worthless but the fact that you have the courage to face this means that you do care and that you are incredibly strong.

    May you be peaceful and happy.

  • Steve, East Riding of Yorkshire
    August 4, 2015 4:23 pm

    Dear All,
    I’ve just come across this site and, as someone who has suffered badly from depression since childhood – I’m now 64 – I have written about and read many thousands of words about this condition over many decades.
    I have also been studying Buddhism for about 20 years and, when I’m in a better place emotionally, I find everything about dharma helpful.
    But when I’m “down”, as I am now, nothing spiritual or otherwise seems of much value.
    Your comments, though, Vanessa, have certainly helped, as have those of other people on this forum. Thanks so much to all of you.
    When I’m feeling better I will post again.
    May everyone be happy,
    May everyone he free from misery…

  • Hello,
    I am in desperate need of advice. I started practicing mindfulness about six months ago and began to notice some benefits pretty quickly. I have suffered from anxiety and mild OCD for a large part of my life and it seemed like it was giving me a little distance from these states and behaviours. I was introduced to Mark Williams and undertook his 8 week course. Episodes of depression and anxiety would flare up during this time as well as obsessive thoughts but I would seem to move on from them rather quickly. And then everything changed. I am now OBSESSED with being mindful and assessing every thought that goes through my brain. Every moment I awake with a terror for what thoughts lie ahead. I constantly feel wrong. I constantly feel like I am not being with everything. I am not enjoying it like I should be. I feel a deep sense of shame and grief that I have a wonderful life and I am wasting it.

    I really relate to this article. I feel as if aspects of meditation have bought a severe depression to the fore. I am now noticing ALL my thoughts but in this I feel overwhelmed by how many are negative and judging. I feel consumed. I ruminate about the past when I worried unnecessarily instead of just enjoying myself. I fret over the fact that I am doing it now but feel powerless to stop it. And I am filled with dread as I think of a future where I can’t stop thinking and will just be filled forever with feeling wrong and disconnected and broken. I want to stop thinking so much. But this want seems to drive the obsessing up a notch. Today I started reading the Happiness Trap by Russ Harris and was having AHA moment after AHA moment. I felt positive that things will change. Before I know it I am hanging out with friends at the park, half listening to the conversation as I obsess over what I am thinking and feeling. Just two hours earlier I had been feeling hopeful and yet here I am again. I know that I have depression and I need to be accepting and loving towards this but I cannot stop resisting pain with un-productive arguing and thinking. I am very analytical and as a controlling perfectionist I can find fault in any moment, judging myself for not feeling it enough or being present enough. In some ways I think I have become too obsessed with being happy and finding peace and enlightenment so I feel really stuck. Do I try to make myself better when the act of trying seems to keep all my problems at the front of my consciousness. I am really at my wits end. I would never ever harm myself but I can’t see how I can possibly live if I continue to think like this for the rest of my life. I just want to be okay with not being okay.
    Please any suggestions would be so helpful.
    Thanks so much for reading.

    • Hi, Holly.

      I’m very sorry to hear that you’re experiencing this kind of suffering. To be honest it sounds like you should talk to a therapist rather than a meditation teacher. It’s quite possible that my advice will be unhelpful.

      Can I clarify something? You wrote, “I am now OBSESSED with being mindful and assessing every thought that goes through my brain,” but what you describe isn’t mindfulness. Well, the fact that you’re aware of your thoughts means there’s some mindfulness there, but mindfulness involves standing back from our experience and observing it without judgement. It leads to a feeling of calm and freedom.

      You seem to be exclusively focused on thinking. Mindfulness starts with the body, not with thoughts. We need to start by paying attention to the physical sensations arising in the body, and to our embodied feelings. That’s the main practice. Doing this leads to a gradual calming of the mind, so that we think less and are also less closely identified with our thoughts. Once we’ve learned how to do this it becomes easier to be mindful of our thinking. You didn’t mention the body at all, so it sounds like you’re missing that whole part of the practice. I assume that if you attended one of Williams’ classes you’ll have learned mindfulness of the breathing, body scanning, and perhaps even mindful walking.

      Those are practices you should focus on—if you’re going to meditate at all, and I think it’s questionable whether you should, until you’ve talked to a therapist.

      You wrote, “Every moment I awake with a terror for what thoughts lie ahead. I constantly feel wrong. I constantly feel like I am not being with everything. I am not enjoying it like I should be.” These are just more thoughts (even if you describe them as things you “feel”). Mindfulness involves standing back from our experience, including our thoughts. Standing back from thoughts means observing them as sounds we’re hearing as they pass through the mind, rather than as stories we’re participating in. Mindfulness allows us to be skeptical of our thoughts. So when you have a thought that expresses fear about what thoughts are coming, that’s just another thought. You can hear the thought but you don’t have to take it seriously. When you have a thought that you’re “wrong” you don’t have to take that seriously either. It’s just a part of the mind creating a story. You don’t have to believe the story.

      So you may well at this point be having thoughts like “Oh, no. I’ve been getting this whole mindfulness thing wrong! This is terrible!” What are you going to do with those thoughts? Do you have to take them seriously? Or can you just hear them arise and pass away in the mind? And where’s your body? Can you direct your attention toward the physical sensations of the breathing, and to other sensations in the body? For now, can you just let go of thoughts whenever you find you’ve been caught up in them? There’s no need to evaluate your thoughts: just keep letting go of them in favor of noticing the body…

      Please do let me know how you get on.

      • Hi Bodhipaksa,

        Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response. I agree with everything you say.

        I guess when I said I am obsessed with being mindful I should have said I am obsessed with my thoughts and this obsession seems to have flourished since starting meditation. I don’t think this is because meditation isn’t for me. I think it is because I have been striving for some notion of ‘perfection – in my mind feeling happy and whole all the time’ and expecting great changes in such a small amount of time. Mindfulness has bought a lot of my obsessive behaviours and thinking habits to the fore of my awareness and in my deep aversion to them they have amplified. Plus I expected them to be gone by now, or for me to have accepted them. I just read your article “The problem of perfectionism” and everything resonated with me. I guess I eagerly dove into Mark Williams 8 week course thinking it would be the cure for my issues without reading helpful background information that would have made me think about how I bring an attitude of obsessive perfectionism to pretty much all realms of my life and thus to be mindful of it when meditating. I am trying to remind myself of this now.

        I definitely agree that I need to keep returning to the embodied experience but my mind has been my default for so long it takes time. Also I notice when I do return to the body thoughts come with it. I may be feeling my breath but thoughts will also be there. Thoughts which sometimes say “oh you are being mindful” Or “you aren’t doing this correctly.” Any thoughts just lead to me thinking that I am somehow not really getting it or will be reaping its benefits. I have been trying to say “it’s okay” when I notice this and just return to the breath but it sometimes feels like a tug and war.

        I can’t afford a therapist atm as I am currently living overseas without access to healthcare and I would like to continue to try meditating (the idea of stopping just made my stomach flip) but I am trying to take it back to basics. I have been practicing your lovingkindness stage one meditation since last week and have also just begun series one of JKZ’s mindfulness meditation. It specifies a forty five minute body scan for the first two weeks and will then move into mindful yoga. I feel developing loving kindness is key to my journey because I really struggle to give myself love or to recognise that I am whole exactly as I am. I am constantly evaluating my thoughts and when I notice this evaluating I get judgmental of that so I feel bringing a kindness to myself is really the only way forward.

        Anyway that is kind of where I am at with it now.

        You said “So you may well at this point be having thoughts like “Oh, no. I’ve been getting this whole mindfulness thing wrong! This is terrible!” What are you going to do with those thoughts? Do you have to take them seriously? Or can you just hear them arise and pass away in the mind? And where’s your body?” Haha yes I had that thought exactly! When you said do you have to take them seriously I thought “no I don’t” and yet I didn’t really let them go either. Before I direct my attention to the sensations in the body would you recommend a little phrase to say to myself when I am believing my story lines or getting caught in habitual negative thoughts?

        Also I just wanted to say thanks for your kind response and this incredible website. I just discovered it last week and am already finding it holds a treasure trove of information :)

        • Hi, Holly.

          Just a quick response: it’s absolutely fine and normal that when you bring your attention to the body your thoughts continue. You’re not going to turn your thoughts off as if you’re flicking a switch. You’re always going to have thinking going on. But as you continue to work on staying rooted in your sensory experience (as opposed to being lost in thought) you’ll take your thoughts less seriously and be less emotionally affected by them. And you’ll start to feel calmer and happier. But this takes time: months, years. Just keep going!

    • A layperson here,
      We are all hiding negative thoughts. All of us. Every monk and philosopher has struggled with this problem. I advise listening to Alan Watt’s lectures on youtube. He shows that the solution is to accept your inner rascal, rather than call it a problem. In fact, this is probably the hardest but most beneficial stage of enlightenment. By the way, I have not overcome this challenge myself yet, so we are on the same level. Many hugs xx

  • I did mindfulness for about 1 year, 1:30 hours sitting each day. i was completely thoughtless at the end of the session. After one year, i had a bad breakup and stopped meditating simultaneously, i was disgusted by poor people and people who do petty work. I was sexually charged more than appropriate. I did not seem to move on. i could feel another individual without actually seeing him. I radiated thoughts from back of my head. I had excessive guilt and i radiated only those thoughts which were wrong as if nature was trying to warn others that i was doing something wrong. Now after 2 years of stopping meditation i feel my life empty. I still seem to radiate thoughts from back of my head which i think are related to guilt. I still have guilt and shame.i have lost my ambitions and aims. I have lost my will, forward drive enthusiasm. I have become very instinctual i feel there is a void inside me, i am empty inside. I am not able to understand things, interest in studies is lost. Desire to become something is lost. I just sleep nowadays. It seems i am detached from people, i am not able to connect to anyone. I hate people and think that people are laughing at me.
    I have strong feeling of guilt. Please help me. I used go be driven, enthusiastic and full of life.

    • Hi, Rishav.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been having these difficulties. It sounds like you’re experiencing some kind of depersonalization — a disconnection from your feelings and a lack of meaning. Willoughby Britton has been collecting information from people who have had experienced like this, and I’d suggest you contact her through the link I’ve provided.

      Although I’ve heard from several people online who have had problems like this, I don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone who has, and may be because in the tradition I’m in people do not take up mindfulness meditation in isolation, but practice in a wider context that includes lovingkindness meditation, ethical practice, friendship, and the experience of spiritual community. We’d see a diet of pure mindfulness meditation as being very unbalanced indeed.

      I don’t know if there’s much help I can offer, unfortunately. I’d hesitate to suggest meditation, but if I were to do so I’d point you toward lovingkindness practice.

  • A lot of comments already but I thought I would share my experiences of meditation during a bout of depression/anxiety.

    My last serious “episode” was about four years ago after I had attempted to stop taking my anti-depressant medication and life hit a bump ( I did this responsibly and carefully over about 6 months ). I had been meditating for perhaps 6 years at this point and ironically, I now recall, I decided to come off the SSRI because of a book I found when on a weekend retreat in Florida with Bodhipaksa.

    My experience was very positive as regards the benefits of meditation. With my mind in such disarray I found that it took a tremendous effort to summon any level of concentration but that I was in a better place making that effort than I was just sitting and suffering. There were a couple of physical things that happened during meditation that were quite notable. It seems that a tremendous sadness welled up in me and manifested in a quite acute facial contorsion. My face frowned so hard it hurt and it was actually a little a worried that I might pull a muscle or dislocate my jaw. I still experience this and I welcome it as sadness that needs expression. I had it this morning and felt better for it. “Sad clown” syndrome might be a good name for it.

    The second thing that only occurred during the bout of depression when I was at my lowest and most anxious was that in the middle of meditation either sitting on a chair or kneeling, my body began to spontaneously rock at the waist. It was quite disconcerting. I was like one of those drinking bird toys, with my straight torso bobbing up and down in a way I didn’t think was physically possible. I just had to breath and observe what was happening. I took this to be a physical expression of grief and at a minimum it was a distraction and most likely a physical manifestation of some kind of release.

    My takeaway is that if you have already achieved some level of skill in meditating, it can definitely help both to survive a depressive episode and to reduce their likelihood. The bad news is that you have to do it every day, depressed or not.

  • I’ve been dealing with severe depression, suicidal ideation, and (possibly psychosomatic) chronic joint pain, as well as occasional panic attacks that only started after I was put on antidepressants. I recently gave breathing meditation a try, but the body-oriented mindfulness only made me more aware of the constant physical pain, and made life more difficult in general.

    My parents then bought me a spot in a 4-day introductory TM course, because TM really helped with my mom’s depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, the TM sessions seem to be having an adverse effect as well. The meditation itself is pleasant, but coming back out has been extremely traumatizing. In the 10+ times I’ve meditated, I’ve always emerged to either a panic attack, or merely bursting into tears. Afterwards, I want nothing more than to crawl into bed for the rest of the day. I’m also alarmed by how much I prefer the meditative void to the real world. I’ve always been someone who had depressive trouble returning from vacations and experiencing other minor negative “downgrades” in life, and I’m worried that the appeal of the void is making my suicidal thoughts worse.

    My TM teacher says that my reaction is a normal purging phase for some practitioners, but I have my doubts. Should I take his advice and stick with it? Is there another meditation technique that might be a better fit for me? Or should I give up meditation entirely for the time being?

    • I have my doubts as well, Rob. I suspect that when you’re reciting your mantra you’re dissociating, and that the emotional turmoil you’re experiencing is taking place when you’re reconnecting with your experience. Persevering with this (assuming I’m right) would not be helpful.

      It might be worth trying a more active form of meditation, such as walking meditation / mindful walking. Yoga might also help. If you try this, please do let me know how you get on.

      • Interesting. So, while reciting the mantra we should NOT dissociate?

        • It’s not a good sign if you get spaced out or feel alienated from your experience when doing any kind of meditation. Be attentive to and present with your experience as much as possible. Appreciate it. Take pleasure in it.


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