Depression and Anxiety
Yes, I know, I’m posting like a mad thing. But now I’ve finished my book, I have the time, so here we go. I’m trying for a post a day.
Recently, maybe because of the effects of the Covid pandemic, I’ve been getting lots of questions that can basically be summed up as, ‘Can mindfulness help heal depression and anxiety?’, which was a question asked in Quora today. So let’s take a look at that.
The short answer is, yes, meditation does help with depression and anxiety, but perhaps not in the way you expect.
While for sure, each of us have different propensities for anxiety and depression depending on our life experience, by far the worst aspect of both these conditions is our reactions to these things. That is, we recognize we’re becoming anxious or depressed, and because we dread what is happening, we tighten up around it and try to stop it – which, ironically, only has the effect of making it worse.
Result being, we get depressed because we’re depressed. We get anxious about feeling anxious, and so on. The veritable dog chasing its tale.
So then, we have two parts to each of these conditions.
We have the initial cause, which arises from hereditary or historical triggers in our unconscious.
And this is followed by the secondary effect of our reaction to what is happening. And as I said, it is this secondary effect that intensifies and sustains the depression or anxiety.
So then, meditation doesn’t directly address the unconscious triggers of these conditions – not the average maintenance type meditating anyway. Deeper, sustained meditation practice over many months in a monastery or meditation center will certainly address those triggers, but most people don’t have access to that kind of practice.
BUT …. regular meditation practice certainly addresses the worst part of the conditions – that is, it modifies our reactions.
So lets look into that.
Basically, when we meditate, we’re practicing a number of skills.
First, we’re practicing acceptance of what is happening, as it happens. After all, one cannot change what one doesn’t first accept.
Second, we’re practicing letting go of what we’ve accepted. That is, we’re allowing what is happening to happen, and while remaining aware of it, at the same time we keep removing our attention from it.
This removal of our attention is subtle, yet extremely powerful. You’ve heard the saying, ‘indifference kills? This is in line with a fundamental rule of life which is, whatever we pay most attention to will strengthen. And whatever we are indifferent to will weaken.
So, we’re practicing indifference to the depression or anxiety.
But in this word practice, we have the rub. One cannot simply decide to be indifferent to such powerful and painful states as depression and anxiety. Like any skill, this kind of indifference must be practiced.
And that requires consistent repetition as we meditate.
And the way we do this is, each time our attention is distracted from the main object of the breath, and goes to something else – a thought or a body sensation – we practice immediately removing our attention from whatever it’s gone to, and returning it to the breath.
Over time, practicing each day, our attention slowly learns to disengage more easily, and more quickly from the things it usually gets stuck on. It gets used to peacefully resting on the breath. Relative tranquility begins to appear and awareness naturally brightens, only for moments at first, then minutes, then longer – and we begin to experience life through sensed, intuitive flow rather than thinking.
So now, when depression or anxiety arise, because we have practiced the skill of accepting and letting go, we’re able to allow the condition to arise, but we remove the aspect of mind which is feeding it – that is, our attention. We take our attention to the breath.
Without the empowering interaction of our attention feeding the depression, or the anxiety, the condition weakens more quickly. And over time, as we keep practicing, the conditions slowly become less of a feature in our lives.
That is – we learn to live with them, without being afraid or them, or dominated by them.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)