This morning I woke up with a feeling of depression. This is not unusual for me. Perhaps you can relate. I have struggled with depression for my entire life since I was a child. I really don't know why and I sort of don't really care why anymore. Nonetheless, I have had to find a way to work with it because it has bordered on being debilitating at many different points in my life.
The feeling I woke up with was very familiar: A sense of heaviness throughout my body and a sense of being held down by unseen hands pressing on crown, chest and belly. A style of mental activity that no matter where I looked in my life: my work, my relationship, bank account, home, body, the future -- it all looked bleak. Very bleak. When this happens I become anxious and want to dispel this matrix immediately. To do so, I dive into stories about how it got to be this way and how it is all my fault. True stories, I might add. I missed this opportunity. I made that wrong choice. My abilities are limited. Yes, true -- on one hand. And utterly useless on the other.
Fortunately, I am old enough and practiced enough to recognize (at some point... ) that my mind is playing a very unpleasant trick on me. Trying to nail the "story" of my depression does not change my mood. I catch myself. At this point, a number of options are possible.
There are schools of thought that suggest that the negative stories we tell ourselves are basically made up in the first place and we should make up positive ones to replace them. I've tried this. It doesn't work for me. It actually creates more confusion, especially when I'm exhorted to believe them at all costs, otherwise, when they fail, it's my fault.
What does seem to work for me is to let go of all stories and take a fresh start, moment to moment. But how?
Here are two ways of liberating ourselves from negative thought patterns. The first is to find whatever therapy or therapies work for you and then work them, work them, work them. Discover the genesis of and habitual patterns that encase such mind states. Identify the warning signs and figure out how to intercede. This is very wonderful.
The second way is to liberate each negative thought on the spot. With this second choice, meditation is very, very helpful. It trains you to observe your thoughts as they arise and make a choice about what to do with them.
For me, one of the most deceptively simple pieces of advice for working with depression was given by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan meditation master who transmitted the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. It was this: "You could always just cheer up."
When I first heard that, I was kind of offended. What do you mean, "cheer up?" It sounded like what people used to tell me when I was little, a variation of "Why are you so serious?" "You're too sensitive." "Get over yourself." Stuff that used to make me really mad. But as I've considered and employed this advice over the years, I see that Trungpa Rinpoche meant something entirely different. He meant that you could always simply let go of what was plaguing you -- no matter how heavy and sorrowful -- and take a breath of fresh air. There is no moment in which this is not possible.
I've tried it countless times. When I catch myself falling into a pit of despair over ill loved ones, for example, or my finances, also suffering from illness I might add, or my inability to make my dreams manifest -- as I plummet, I say to myself, "You could always just cheer up." Amazingly, even if it's only for a moment, I do. It has nothing to do with talking myself out of what is bothering me by convincing myself that it will all be OK for this reason or that. It has nothing to do with fake-deleting negative thoughts and fake-inserting wishful thoughts, a.k.a. positive thoughts. It has to do with letting it all, all, all go and reconnecting with -- well, what would you call it? The present moment. Nowness. Space.
You could do it too. It's really simple to get the sense of how. Have you ever been in a fitness class, for example, where they tell you to tense up your shoulders... hold... hold... hold... and then release? When you do this, there is a sudden rush of clean energy. You can also do this with your mind. When you feel depressed -- or grief-stricken or angry or disappointed -- you could tune into it. Locate the feeling in your physical or emotional body, or in the environment and open to it, take its temperature, note its textures. Intensify it -- the feeling, not the story behind the feeling -- and then let go. Intensify, intensify, intensify -- LET GO. Try it. See what happens. What happens for me is there is a sudden rush, no matter how big or small, of life force and renewed energy.
The therapy path for working with depression meets depressive patterns as wave forms. Which is awesome. In this way, we can work with the ongoing and pervasive presence of negativity. The "cheer-up path" for working with depression meets such patterns as particles. We can work with each one in the moment it appears. Together, these two approaches, wave and particle, can create quantum change in our relationship to depression.
And know this: It all begins with catching yourself, with the ability, no matter how momentary, to see what is happening in your own mind, to flash on the reality of your inner state as if a lightning strike suddenly lit up a dark valley. Then you can step outside of your heavy, convincing, painful thought patterns. With this step away, you introduce a moment of possibility... of change... of a fresh start... you cheer up. At which point, everything is possible.
This ability to observe your thinking is the fruit of meditation practice. In a very real sense, this -- noticing and letting go, noticing and letting go, is what you are practicing. I hope you will find a way to make meditation a part of your life. (I teach it via twice-weekly videos sent to your inbox as part of The Open Heart Project, but there are many wonderful places you could go to learn.)
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