Note I write this back in 2009, and was leery of making some of the things here public. I have decided that it’s better to think of others first and not worry about it. I hope this helps.
- The ground of depression
- Calming the mind
- Reality and you – some things to muse on:
- More help
- Closing remarks
Homage to Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom. Gratitude and praise to my lama Jampa Thaye and his lama Karma Thinley Rinpoche for sharing the teachings and keeping them alive in these dark times.
I write here to help others who have been or are afflicted with this condition. After many years struggling with it I find myself not needing the medication I used to have to take; I also have a much healthier view of the world and my own place in it. I want to share what I have discovered in the process of becoming a Buddhist, in the hope that it may benefit others.
I cannot condone anyone who is on medication for a depressive condition stopping the medication and “just meditating”. If you are ill take your medicine, talk to your counsellor, don’t be foolish. You are drowning and these medicines and skilled professionals are holding out a hand to keep your head out of the water and stay breathing. Take the hand, please. I believe that I would not be alive writing this without modern antidepressant medication and other support I received over the
years. Once you are in recovery and have some control then by all means try and withdraw, but seek medical advice and support. The mind is a wonderful and dangerous thing, and these medications can also be dangerous if you don’t withdraw from them carefully.
Most people feel down or unhappy at some time in their lives – we are all human and this is inevitable, something that cannot be avoided. Depression distorts your view of the world and clings to the bad and makes the good tainted and bitter. The mind’s view of reality is skewed and everything becomes wrong or bad. Depressives, like most people, are obsessed with themselves, and because they do not like themselves nothing can ever be right. They also live in a dark world of self-fulfilling prophecy where their self-hatred is reaffirmed by everything that goes on around them. It is quite usual for someone in a downward spiral of acute depression to drive away those that love and care for them and say that they should not waste their time.
Poor you. That is the thought that comes again and again. It’s a childlike view, but in fact only a more extreme form of the view that most people have, placing themselves in the centre of the universe. I used to hear a quiet, nagging voice all the time telling me I was too ill to do things and that I was tired. All the time. This voice also tells you that you can’t do things, or that you are a failure, or that everybody hates you, depending upon its mood. It is a peculiarly comforting voice because it confirms your prejudices and allows you to opt out of everything and descend into a delicious torpor.
Another mental construct is pushing all your problems onto others. By this I mean siting responsibility for your happiness and well being outside yourself. This means that you can point to someone else and say “they shouldn’t have hurt me all those years ago, it’s their fault”. The Buddha pointed out that there are no external agencies that you can rely on for your happiness, because none of them are reliable. The converse is also true: you can’t blame a single person for your continuing misery, either. Most of what goes on in your head is directly under your control; you just need to learn how to find that control.
The therapeutic counselling I have had centres on challenging the depressive faulty world view. Not necessarily challenging their own sense of being the centre of the universe, but certainly that the universe is out to get them. A common test to see how ill a person is revolves around simply asking them about how they look at the world and can accept what happens their relationships, do they lose their temper, do they feel people are out to get them and so on. Most people score two or three out of twenty, depressives score above five. My counsellor told me that one of her clients had scored the maximum I felt tears spring to my eyes in sympathy for this person.
Even when a depressed person isn’t curling up in a ball and waiting to die and outward appearances are reasonably good it is possible to see their mental poisons working in them. If you see yourself as something to be hated and spat upon then that is how you behave: if you are a perennial victim then you will never escape from your victimhood. I call this, metaphorically, “sticking your hand in the blender”. It is a product of low self-esteem, and that of depressives is the lowest of all.
The motor of the anxiety is the incorrect view of the world; because it seems to be “out to get you” you go into what psychologists call “fight or flight” mode. This is the physical readiness to either defend yourself or run away, that comes from our primate ancestors. The mind is locked into a place where it feels mildly threatened all the time. This makes sleep difficult and the adrenaline coursing through the body fuels irrational, aggressive behaviour. One way to combat this is to get some exercise, but of course the constant edginess and lack of sleep makes motivation hard to find. It may sound odd but I have often found a short brisk walk gets rid of at least some of the feelings of anxiety because it allows your body to get rid of the poisons in the blood.
The depressive feels fixed and unchanging, in fact we all do, but the mind is in constant motion and the heaviness and “stuckness” is an illusion. The mind is not a solid thing stuck in one place, if it were then you could never learn anything or experience anything new. The mind feels heavy, like everything is being seen and heard dimly and understanding what is going on around you takes enormous amounts of energy to overcome the inertia. The heaviness affects everything and it is almost as if the sun has been “turned down” a few notches.
I remember once describing a severe episode as being like having a constant irritating noise in your ear; every thought and action was hard to do because of it. A lot of effort was needed to start doing anything and get past the fear. It prevented proper understanding of other people because just thinking itself was hard, way before any doing could even be attempted. The “noise” eventually went away and it went away when I made myself do things.
The techniques described here are simple, but that does not mean they are easy. To have any beneficial effect you must be prepared to work at them. The technique described here is known as calm abiding or shamatha. It is one of the fundamental meditation techniques and has been used by many disciplines, including modern Western medicine, to calm people. 1
|1||For example see A Little Book of Calm amongst many others.|
The steps are as follows:
- You must find somewhere you can be undisturbed and relaxed. Posture is important, the back must be straight so you can breathe properly using your diaphragm. This is why Buddhists generally sit cross legged with a cushion under their backsides; it pitches the hips slightly forward and down and gives a straight back when done properly. A straight backed chair will do. Please note that a “straight” back is actually slightly S shaped when relaxed properly with the components of the spine lying correctly on top of one another, a back that is straight like a ruler is very uncomfortable and stressed.
- Get yourself into this relaxed posture looking slightly down. It may help at first to close your eyes, but usually the recommendation is to have the eyes slightly closed and relaxed. Now simply count as you breathe in and out normally, counting on the out breath. In my tradition we try to count to twenty-one and then start again; other traditions use different numbers or even none at all. The aim is to give the mind something easy and relaxing to do so that its constant running off onto different thoughts can be slowed down.
- What you will find at first is that it is probably quite hard to get past about ten or so before your mind wanders off and starts worrying at something. This is fine and quite normal. You need to gently take the energy away from the thought, let it fade, and then resume the counting. It doesn’t matter where you count from, start again if you can’t remember; there is nothing magical about the number, it is just something to occupy the mind while you learn to control it a little.
- Initially do not try to do this more than five minutes at a stretch. Pushing too hard will just make it push back and frustrate you. It is much harder than it sounds and your mind has deeply ingrained habits of running away down interesting mental rabbit holes. The key thing is to learn to gently catch it running away and return it to watching the breath. This technique is also good for calming yourself down if you are upset or angry by taking your attention away from the things that are bothering you.
- You need to try and do this regularly every day and slowly build up the amount of time you spend on it, maybe to ten or twenty minutes. It is best to do the technique just after you have woken up to take it with you through your whole day. If you are only doing a few minutes you could just sit straight at the edge of the bed, get ready and then hit the sleep button on your alarm clock and use the “sleep” minutes to meditate – this means you don’t have to worry about watching clocks and worrying about being late.
It is important not to “shout” at your mind and get angry and try and force it to be still because it can’t do this simple task. It has never had to do this before, usually it can just run off wherever it likes and you are asking it to do something it has never done. As stated earlier it is simple, but not easy. Learning to calm the mind is work, you need to discover how to stop the energy of thoughts spiralling away from you by gently taking it away. The mind is a paradoxical thing; the more you fix on anything, whether you love or hate it, the more you think about it. The more you try not do do something the more you want to do it. The more you try and suppress something the more it will not be suppressed. The mind spends its energy in fixing on things for good or bad. Relaxing the mind allows it to become still and free itself from whatever is worrying it.
After a week or perhaps longer you should notice that you have discovered that there is a small gap between having a thought and acting on it. You no longer have to react straight away. The door of the prison of reacting instantly to everything is slightly open and you realise that even when provoked or under a lot of mental strain you always have a choice in how you perceive and then react to things. As you increase the amount of calm abiding you do this sense of being a little bit in control of your mind and not having to react instantly will increase, but it comes from being relaxed, not from fighting or getting frustrated. The next step is to work out what to do with it.
As your awareness of the workings of your mind becomes sharper you will also notice that there is a “voice” to your mind that has the thoughts you are taking the energy away from and allowing to fade. A depressed person’s voice is usually saying negative unhelpful things quietly and persistently. Now that you are aware of the voice you can challenge its assumptions and stop listening to it. This is also the voice people hear when they are justifying themselves, it is very strong and good at justifying anything. You can see it better in other people when they do something selfish or inconsiderate and then make themselves out to be some kind of martyr beyond criticism, realise that this voice is there in your head too and learn to recognise it. When I didn’t want to do something I used to hear a voice telling me I felt ill, now I just do things that need to be done and I don’t hear the voice any more – it’s very liberating.
You will not become some kind of saint overnight, but you will gain some insight into the workings of your own mind and some control over its constant wandering and self justification. You need to treat yourself with the compassion and patience you would treat a frightened child learning some new task, because that is what you are attempting. You are trying to get the tools to lead that child away from the painful trap it has made for itself to somewhere better, so be patient and kind to yourself first. Tibetans have a saying: leap like a tiger, walk like a tortoise. 2 Your intellectual understanding may happen very quickly, but changing your actual behaviour and core beliefs based on that understanding will take a lot of time and patience.
|2||Lama Jampa has written a book with this title aimed at beginners on the Buddhist path, which also explains shamatha mediation. See http://www.dechen.org/shop/books.html|
A depressive’s view of their place in the world is incorrect and damaging to their peace of mind. This section consists of a few Buddhist ideas that may be unfamiliar that can give you a more rational perspective. There is nothing mystical about them, they are just a different way of looking at the world that might be unfamiliar to someone brought up in the West.
Because the things you think will make you happy will eventually cease to be, just like they once didn’t exist, you cannot rely on them. Your mind has tricked you into believing that if you have that thing, have a relationship with that boy or this girl, possess that car or this house, then you will be happy. Oddly, as a depressive, you already know this isn’t true because your depression tells you so. Your view of your place world is much more honest than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean the dark things you also believe are true, either.
How does this help you if you are depressed? The first thing to say is that impermanence means that your unhappiness is no more permanent than happiness, it will pass. It may seem unbearable but it will pass. Impermanence can seem bleak, because it means that the things that “make” you happy are always going to leave you too. So, enjoy them while you have them and then accept they will leave eventually, you are nothing more than a caretaker. There is no need to be permanently miserable and no need to look back all the time. By the same token living in the future can be painful because it will not conform to what you want either. The only thing you have is the moment you are living now and one of the things the calm abiding meditation technique outlined earlier does is help you become much more aware of that moment.
Because the world you live in is shaped by your mind you have some control over it. Not the crazy idea that you could do something like change the weather, but more that you can put a coat on if it’s cold and that bad weather ruining your plans just means you need to make other plans. One thing you always have control over is how you react to events. Things don’t “make” you happy or unhappy, they come and go. The chocolate cake you crave for doesn’t “make” you eat it, it’s just cake. The strange thing is that this view gives you more freedom to act and find contentment – the cake will taste better too because you aren’t answering a craving but eating because you are hungry and are free to enjoy it for itself.
To return to the question again – how does this help you if you are depressed? In essence you feel bad because of choices you have made, usually unconsciously, about how you react to the world and other people around you. It starts with the centre of the universe being your own perceptions and feelings, then everything that happens to you is loaded with a heavy significance and seems to have been designed to hurt you and twist you up inside. Of course, you may also have a predisposition to feeling like this too, which makes getting onto the downward spiral easier than it might be for other people.
The process is self reinforcing – if you feel bad you withdraw and want to be left alone, things happen and your mind puts a slant on everything that makes you feel like the world is out to get you so you withdraw some more. Perhaps you lash out, either directly or indirectly at the world, or get drunk and behave really badly (for example) and maybe some things that really are meant to hurt you happen because other people are annoyed with you, so you withdraw some more. Eventually you feel terrible and hurt inside and can’t remember when it began, then anxiety hits.
Calm abiding meditation gives you the tool to see the spiral happening if you use it properly. You also need to start questioning the global conspiracy to make you miserable and upset – laugh about it to yourself a little, it isn’t real, nobody has the time or the energy to do such a thing – particularly if you manage to do it so well on your own without any help. Ask yourself: why would they bother? In terms of the infinite universe we live in you really aren’t important enough, we are all tiny impermanent bubbles frothing on a wave and have little to worry about really.
Even if someone is out to “get” you because of some history you have with them you don’t have to join in any more. You can shrug and move on when they try and hook you with some juicy morsel that allows you to be angry and upset. No-one forces you to react to anything, however you might feel. It’s quite likely that you are “sticking your hand in the blender”, as described earlier. No-one is making you do repetitive self-destructive things or lash out and roar like a wounded bear. You can choose not to once you realise that there is a gap between thinking something and doing it.
Imagine that you spend your life walking around a town or city, when you pass down a particular street you fall down a hole in the road. It is painful takes a lot of time and energy to escape from. The next time you fall down the hole again because you weren’t paying attention to your whereabouts. This keeps happening until you learn to pay attention to what is happening around you. One day you walk past the hole. Another day you walk down a different street. It is is literally all in the mind, and you can choose how you react to things. Yes, you are a prisoner, but you locked yourself in there – no-one else did – and you can escape if you are willing to work at it. And no, you can’t sue anybody, everybody falls down the hole – it’s part of learning to take responsibility for your life. 3
|3||I think this is from Spiritual Materialism|
This section has an odd title. It is a reflection on how your actions allow others to behave towards you. If you hate someone and behave towards them in a hateful way, for example saying or doing unkind things towards them behind their back, what does it allow them to do? It makes it OK for them to do the same to you, doesn’t it? In fact it’s even worse than that – it makes it OK for anyone to do it to you, never mind your enemies.
Hating gives permission to hate. This is true of all negative activity: if it has been made “normal” to do it then it will be more likely to happen. You need to consciously guard the way you think and behave so you don’t give others permission to be negative or unkind back to you. It also gives you the authority to gently point out that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable, without being hypocritical.
The wonderful and enriching thing about this is praise gives permission to praise, loving-kindness gives permission for loving-kindness. It’s better to start from there, isn’t it? This may sound cheesy to some, but think about it, being trite doesn’t stop it being true, does it?
In a probably too simplistic nutshell, this encapsulates the concept of karma. It isn’t some kind of ridiculous caricature of divine punishment. It’s just that any action has consequences in your life and it’s always better to choose kindness than misery.
When you are extremely depressed it is easy to fall into a habit of thinking “everybody hates me, I am worthless”. Then, being human, you kick against it and become angry. So you look at the world with an angry face. The world will look back at you like a mirror. I learned to look people in the eye (go gently at first or people will be scared of you!) and smile. Then I listened to what they were saying without interrupting 4. Suddenly a lot of barriers that used to hurt me, things continually going wrong and making me angry and upset, just disappeared. It’s very hard to make this transition but worth trying.
|4||We have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion. I don’t know who said this originally, but it is good advice.|
As has been said here over and over again, take small steps and don’t beat yourself up if you slip back. One small change to a bad habit every day, or even every week, and you will change irrevocably for the better quite quickly. But you aren’t perfect – it’s fine not to be. Our Western education system teaches us that you must be right all the time, and in some religious systems there is a concentration on sin and blame to the exclusion of our human potential for goodness. But you are human and therefore imperfect, so it really isn’t a big deal to be what you are 5. Learn from your mistake, look for how your anger, pride or whatever it was ambushed you and work out what to watch for. Next time that mistake probably won’t happen – but something else will! It’s the human condition, and it’s what you have to work with, so relax.
|5||In fact you can be nothing else!|
I came up with this technique after realising that I had a self-deprecating voice in my head, constantly criticising me and putting me down. I’m not sure how Buddhist it actually is, but I did find some benefit from it so I will outline it here:
- Give the negative voice a face, in my case I imagined a black crow sitting on my shoulder.
- Let the voice start speaking – its voice is loud and scratching, irritating in the extreme.
- Look at the crow, or whatever creature you have imagined.
- Remove it gently it from your shoulder and say, to it “I will not listen to you any more”.
- Offer it a cake or something pleasant and ask it to leave with a smile on your face.
- Do not listen to it any more. Seriously, that’s all it takes. You may have to do this quite a few times, particularly when you are stressed and upset by the voice. But it can be done.
Everybody’s favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Depressives do not differ from anybody else on this score, but unfortunately they are hampered by a strong dislike of themselves, even an irrational anger, and it hurts to constantly be thinking of something you hate. Ask yourself this: if you dislike yourself so much why do you think about yourself so much?
Depressives feel isolated, like they are the only people feeling these terrible feelings about themselves and the world around them. The fact is that everybody is deluded and acts like they are in a film of their lives, with a script they can control, when in fact they only really control how they react to things and what choices they make when a choice can be made. As was said earlier, it’s likely that your unhappiness is more honest than other people’s; your depression has given you insight into the inevitability of things breaking and ending – it is good to muse on these things. The problem is you need to get rid of the tendency to take this insight to an unhealthy extreme and hurting yourself.
In the West we have been infected with a binary blindness. Things have to be good or bad, right or wrong. The path you follow must be one thing or another, if you aren’t for X (pick one) you must be against it. If you live a binary life it’s easy because you don’t have to make decisions about a lot of things, or even take responsibility because you are just following the edge of the maze of life by always keeping to one side of the path. Usefully, someone else has usually set up the distinctions so you don’t have to think about it. For example alcohol is banned by some religions, in Buddhism we take a vow not to become intoxicated, because that’s when you can lose control and do or say something you will later regret. But it isn’t banned outright, people are expected to find the limits they are comfortable with and live within them. They are expected to think for themselves and know what they need to do to stay on the right side of this 6.
|6||Monks and Nuns are not allowed alcohol. They also have many other vows and pledges that lay people don’t. The Tibetan saint Milarepa, who was an ascetic rather than a monk, said that he simply wasn’t strong enough to be a house holder like his own master Marpa. The monastic vows make things easier, not harder, if you approach them in the right way.|
The world around you isn’t binary, some kind of flip flop into either/or. Before the Buddha became enlightened he subjected himself to terrible deprivations, starving himself so that he could lose his attachment to his body. One day he heard a musician talking to his apprentice: if the strings are too tight then the instrument will not play, if they are too loose then they will buzz and not play either. Buddha realised that the proper path is between all extremes. In fact a great many of the deep teachings about the nature of reality revolve around this point.
How does this help you if you are depressed? You are in an extreme state of mind and it makes you think and act in extreme ways. You may give other people the benefit of the doubt and even encourage them to do better rather than pouring down heavy criticism on them but you won’t do it for yourself. Speaking personally my own perfectionism held me back trying all kinds of things I am now quite good at. Saying you won’t do something is very different from saying you can’t.
You need to examine what you do and see if you are following an extreme path, for example no exercise or too much exercise, working too hard or being lazy, overindulging in chocolate or alcohol. Instead of being a binary person, going for boom and bust start trying to find the middle way. Use the habit of strong introspection depression has given you to examine what you do for these on/off patterns and start trying to be more like the strings that are at the correct tension. Binary people are also completely helpless when they are confronted with anything new, who wants to be like that?
I am a member of the Dechen community, found at http://www.dechen.org. We run classes to introduce people to Buddhism and simple meditation techniques, you can find out more from the website. We also occasionally teach from the texts on sending and taking that might be a logical next step after you have been working on calm abiding for a while. In any event if you go looking for a teacher you need to satisfy yourself as to their qualifications; make sure that they studied under a recognised teacher themselves, and that their teacher has given them permission to teach. Do not be afraid to ask questions of people, it is part of the tradition for a potential student to make sure that the teacher is properly qualified and they will not be offended in the slightest.
Be warned, though, that Buddhist teachers teach Buddhism first. For Buddhists the purpose of meditation is to eventually gain enlightenment. A sincere teacher will not turn you away if you are in distress, but if you want tuition in calm abiding in a secular context it may be better to go to a yoga teacher or class. Any activity that involves movement and calming the mind will be useful.
If you are really suffering and have read this text I hope it helped you gain a better perspective on your problems. You must acknowledge your distress and get help, once you get past a certain point is is extremely difficult to resolve this condition on your own. I know from my own family that depression can kill you, so don’t take it lightly or pretend you can get by as each day becomes even harder than the last. Western medicine has come a long way in the last few years and you may not like the side effects of the pills they give you, but side effects are better than being dead and beyond help. Then you can think about other ways of sustaining yourself in the long term.
Traditional texts open with a dedication and explanation of their purpose as this one did. They close acknowledging the origin of the teachings contained in them. In that vein I dedicate whatever merit this text may have to the benefit of others, with gratitude to my lama, Jampa Thaye.
Eight Verses for Training the Mind, trans. Lama Jampa Thaye, Ganesha Press
The Way of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Jampa Thaye, Thorsons 2001
Leap Like a Tiger, Walk like a Tortoise, Lama Jampa Thaye, Ganesha Press, 1994
The Telescope of Wisdom, Karma Thinley Rinpoche, trans. Adrian O’Sullivan, Ganesha Press, 2009
The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Dharma, Lama Jampa Thaye, Ganesha Press
Luminous Mind, Kalu Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications 1997, see particularly section 1
The Great Path of Awakening, Jamgon Kongtrul, trans. Ken McLeod, Shambala Classics 2005
Dhammapada, Dharma Publishing 1985
The Art of Happiness, HH The Dalai Lama,
Awakening the Mind, Lightening the Heart, HH The Dalai Lama, Thorsons. 1997
Buddha, Karen Armstrong, Phoenix, 2002