A fairly recent television ad for an antidepressant that shall remain nameless used the tagline "Depression hurts." And really, you couldn't say anything more truthful about this amorphous and much-studied yet little-understood condition. Depression can sap the life out of you, make you feel worthless, self-destructive, and like there's nothing in the world that's real except for the pain. I know the feeling, believe me. I know how people with depression can be so sensitive to painful situations and triggers that we can sometimes literally be afraid of normal human interaction for fear of the pain. We may pop pills, abuse drugs or alcohol, or numb ourselves in a myriad of other ways just to feel that we can cope. Let's face it simply: Depression sucks.
So how can something so painful be our teacher?
One of my favorite authors is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Her book "When Things Fall Apart" sits on my bookshelf, dog-eared and weatherbeaten from much use. Pema was the first person who taught me that painful situations, including depression, are here to teach us something. Another non-dual teacher, Pamela Wilson, teaches that painful feelings are here to sit satsang with us -- that is, to engage in a teaching and learning dialogue. When we are depressed, we either struggle to feel better or we give up and wallow in feeling lousy. Neither of these tactics is likely to make the feelings of sadness, lethargy and hopelessness go away. Medication, though it can be an important part of treatment, only covers up the feelings; excessive talk therapy, though also potentially healing, at its worst simply gives us the chance to endlessly ruminate on our problems. What if there was a way to walk the middle ground, and engage with the hard feelings, even while engaging in other forms of treatment? When we're tired of fighting the sadness and tired of feeling bad, can we face the depression with compassion and curiosity and ask it what it's here to teach us?
Here are five ways you can let depression be your teacher:
- Start a mindfulness or meditation practice. I know what you're thinking: "Oh, no, not another person telling me to meditate." But if you can't or don't want to sit formally, practice mindfulness and presence in your everyday life, and start a spiritual or grounding practice, even if it's only one minute or so -- set an intention for your day before you head out the door. The practice of continually bringing yourself back to the present moment will serve you for a lifetime and will eventually lessen your tendency to wander off into ruminations and negative thought-stories that can contribute to low mood. This step teaches us to stop and pay attention.
- Pain will happen, and when it does, use it as an opportunity to be present with the sensations. Look at the pain, even if you can only do it for a second, from the outside. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? If you sit with it for a few moments, how does it shift or change? Can you practice, even if only briefly, not judging it or trying to push it away? Practice this with compassion for yourself and for your pain. This practice teaches us that we can survive what we think we can't; that we can face pain that terrifies us. See if you can gradually increase the time that you can sit with the pain and not turn away. Play with it, but don't force yourself to go past the point where it feels okay. When you feel you must stop, stop.
- When you feel depression, can you look at yourself with compassionate care, the way you would a child or friend who is hurting? Ask your hurting self: "What is wrong?" Listen for the answers that are below the stories of how you've been wronged or the something terrible that has happened. See if you can boil your pain down to one or two words: Loss. Loneliness. Feeling betrayed. Feeling abandoned. Hopeless. Feeling unlovable.
- Now, ask your hurting child-friend self: "What do you need?" Using your words from step 3 as your starting points, boil the answer down, going under the story of the loss or disappointment you have suffered. Connection. To feel loved. To feel wanted. To feel safe. Steps 3 and 4 teach us what the depression is about, really, rather than what the stories are that we tell ourselves about how this or that happened that was bad. Once we know the truth, we can act to fill our lives with more connection, love, safety, or whatever we are missing.
- From what you have learned about your pain, can you be with the experience of wanting to feel loved, wanted, connected or safe? Can you imagine, viscerally, what it might feel like to feel those things? Everyone wants these things. These needs connect you to every other human on the planet. Let these universal needs open your heart. Can you close your eyes and let this feeling of connection soak into your whole being? One of the worst things about depression is that it makes us feel disconnected and alone. This practice can help us feel connected again, and this alone can lend us strength and the hope that we can feel better.
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