Depression’s Truth

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We are normally charmed by the world, under the spell of samsaric entertainment. But it’s when we’re depressed, says Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, that we can see through that.

Depression is something we all experience. For some people depression is mild, while for others it is very intense and debilitating. For some people it lasts for a short time and then disappears, while for others it may persist over many years, or even an entire lifetime. We generally think of depression as a terrible state to be in: it is something we think we have to overcome, and we go to great lengths to hide it from others. This is probably because when we suffer from depression, our energy levels and motivation go down and we become withdrawn, uncommunicative, irritable, resentful and basically very difficult to be with. There is also often a lot of anger, jealousy or envy mixed with depression, because seeing someone who is happy only makes our depression worse. The point is that depression, in terms of its symptoms, can be debilitating and paralyzing because of what the Buddhists call the “conflicting emotions” associated with it. When we are depressed, our self-esteem and self-confidence plummet. We begin to doubt ourselves. We begin to think that we have become a failure at everything.

Western psychotherapists say that you can learn a person’s reasons for experiencing depression if you look into their biographical or biological history. From the Buddhist point of view, though, the fundamental understanding is that depression is based on our interpretations of our life situations, our circumstances, our self-conceptions. We get depressed for not being the person we want to be. We get depressed when we think we have not been able to achieve the things that we want to achieve in life.

But depression is not necessarily a bad state to be in. When we are depressed, we may actually be able to see through the falsity and deceptive nature of the samsaric world. In other words, we should not think, “When I am depressed my mind is distorted and messed up, while when I am not depressed I am seeing everything clearly.”

According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive—the world we interact with and live in—is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world, like a spell has been put on us by the allure of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, though, we begin to see through that—we are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. Depression, when we work with it, can be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It reminds us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.

That is extremely important, according to Buddhism, because if we are not convinced of the illusory nature of the samsaric condition, we will always be two-minded. We will have one foot in the spiritual realm and the other in the samsaric realm, never being fully able to make that extra effort.

We are not talking, though, about chronic or clinical depression here, depression that has got way out of hand. We are talking about the kind of depression that makes us stop and think and re-evaluate our lives. This kind of depression can aid us in terms of our spiritual growth, because it makes us begin to question ourselves. For all these years we may have been thinking, “I’m this kind of person,” “I’m that kind of person,” “I’m a mother,” “I’m an engineer,” or whatever. Then suddenly that familiar world crumbles. The rug is pulled out from under our feet. We have to have experiences like that for our spiritual journey to be meaningful; otherwise we will not be convinced of the non-substantial nature of the samsaric world. Instead, we will take the world of everyday life to be real.

With a genuinely constructive form of depression, we become nakedly in touch with our emotions and feelings. We feel a need to make sense of everything, but in new ways. Now, making sense of everything from the samsaric point of view does not work. All the old beliefs, attitudes and ways of dealing with things have not worked. One has to evaluate, say and do things differently, experience things differently. That comes from using depression in a constructive fashion.

Depression can be used to curb our natural urges to lose control, to become distracted and outwardly directed, dispersing our energy in all directions. The feeling of depression always reminds us of ourselves; it stops us from becoming lost in our activities, in our experiences of this and that. A genuinely constructive form of depression keeps us vividly in touch with our feelings. In that sense, a modest form of depression is like a state of mental equilibrium.

Everything we experience is normally experienced from an egoistic or narcissistic point of view. But a constructive form of depression takes away the brashness, the security and the illusory forms of self-confidence that we have. When we are depressed, instead of thinking with such confidence, “I know what is going on, I know where things are at,” we are forced to be more observant and to question our assumptions, attitudes and behavior. That is what we have to do if we are to make progress on the spiritual path.

The individual is then open to new ways of doing things, new and creative ways of thinking. As the Buddhist teachings say, we have to ride with life, we have to evolve. Life itself is a learning process and we can only evolve and learn when we are open. We are open when we question things, and we only question things when we are aware of our inadequacies as much as of our abilities. Being aware of what we do not know is more important than being aware of what we do know: if we concentrate on what we do not know, we will always be inquisitive and want to learn. And we want to learn if there is that slight experience of depression, which in Tibetan is called yid tang skyo pa, which has the connotation of being tired of all that is unreal, of all that is sham and illusory. The mood of depression can, in fact, propel us forward.

Even though many people who experience depression say that they feel stuck, the feeling of depression can be a motivating force. The Christian mystics used the expression, “dark night of the soul,” which means that you have to experience the darkness in order to go forward. You cannot just embark on the mystical journey and expect everything to be hunky-dory. You have to have the experience of the carpet being pulled out from under your feet and you have to experience yourself dangling and questioning, filled with doubts and uncertainties, not knowing what the hell is going on. As Lao Tzu says, “Those who say they know, don’t know, and those who say they don’t know, know.” I suppose he is making a similar kind of point, in that the true intuitive knowledge necessary on the spiritual path comes from doubt, uncertainty and not knowing. The arrogance of knowing is expiated.

In other words, the spiritual path does not just consist of things that massage the ego or make the ego feel good and comfortable. The ego has to be continuously and repeatedly challenged in order for us to grow spiritually. One of the first things that the ego has to learn is that nothing in this world is stable or absolutely true.

In order to deal with depression effectively, we must cultivate five qualities in our meditation: courage, awareness, joy, love and compassion. Cultivating courage means that we have to have the willingness to allow ourselves to be in a depressed state. If depression is the state that we find ourselves in, we should not become alarmed and regard it as a sign of something terrible. We have to have the courage not to recoil from our experience but simply allow it to arise. It is not helpful to indulge in negative internal dialogues like, “How long is this depression going to last? Is it going to get worse? How am I going to be able to cope with myself? What will people think of me?” Approaching everything that we experience courageously will result in those experiences having no effect on us: on the contrary, we will become empowered by them.

This sort of courage is based on a fundamental conviction that we are capable of dealing with whatever it is that arises, rather than thinking that somehow or other what arises is going to have an adverse effect on us. When we start to think that our experience is going to affect us adversely, then fear, anxiety and all of those things come up. But when we are able to say, “Whatever arises is O.K.,” we do not have to be so self-protective. By allowing the depressive mood to be there—if that is what comes up—we are showing courage. If we have that kind of courage we are not harmed. More damage is done by hiding behind our illusions and delusions; when we do that, the conflicting emotions become insidious.

Most damage takes place due to lack of courage. This lack of courage is almost like a pathological need to protect ourselves. We think, “I won’t be able to handle this, it will be too much. I will be destroyed. I will go crazy.” We indulge in all kinds of negative monologues. This is the reason our minds get disturbed, not because we have had such-and-such experience. It is not our experiences but our reactions to them that cause damage. We have to forget about our fear that we will somehow be harmed by our negative experiences. If we concentrate more on the courageous mental act of being able to accommodate and accept, we will provide room for the depressive state of mind to be there and we will no longer react to it with alarm.

Having courage in meditation practice means that there automatically will be awareness there. Awareness means being able to see what is going on. If we do not show courage in our meditation there will be no awareness either, because we will instinctively recoil from our meditative experiences. As soon as something disturbing or unpleasant arises, such as a depressive mood, we will recoil. We have to practice awareness in relation to things that we think of as harmful, as well as the things we regard as innocuous. Through showing courage, we can be aware of what we have allowed ourselves to experience.

Awareness is not a state, but a process: an “aware-ing.” All the mental states that arise in the mind are also processes. This is an important thing to notice. Even if you are in a depressed mood, you see that the mood changes—if you are aware. If you are not aware, there is no change, no transmutation, no movement. But if you are aware, you will notice that subtle permutations of change are continuously taking place: you will see that the experience of the depressed mood itself fluctuates. Normally we assume that it is the same depression, but it is never the same. It is always presenting itself differently.

This kind of attention is one of the things that Buddhism encourages us to exercise through the practice of meditation, because not noticing things is what leads us to solidify our experiences. When that solidification takes place, our minds become fixated on things and awareness is instantly dissipated. We are no longer in touch with our own mental state. When we are directly in touch with our mental state, we can see the changing hues of our depressive mood.

One sign of depression is a person’s posture. In meditation, we pay attention to our posture. We do not sit with our shoulders slouched, looking defeated and forlorn. It is said that the shoulders should be extended and the chest out, showing some kind of majesty and royal bearing. That has to be included in the practice of awareness.

The way to stay in touch with our mental state is simply by paying attention to what we are experiencing in the moment. But when Buddhists talk about “being in the now,” they often think that the “now” has no relevance to the past or the future. That is not true. The way to experience the present moment is not by ignoring the relationship between our present experience and where that experience has come from or where it might be going. The past and the present are embodied in the experiences that we have as human beings. Whatever experiences we have, we have them because of the past; we cannot have an experience that is totally disconnected from our past.

The reason why a particular experience arose in the first place is because of our past. That is the reality of karma. Our present mental state is the product of previous mental states and previous life experiences. In other words, what we are experiencing now is the fruit of what we have experienced in the past. When we pay attention to what we are experiencing now, through awareness, we are able to determine our future karma by making it take a different course. If we do not pay attention, our future karma will not be altered.

Besides courage and awareness, we need to cultivate joy in order to work with depression. Joy here does not mean elation, which is always a bad sign. When we are feeling really high, we crash really hard. In this context, joy means a sense of physical and mental wellbeing. That is, if we have good experiences in meditation, we do not feel too excited, and if we have bad experiences, we do not feel too down and hopeless. Joy in Tibetan is called dga’ ba; it means not being like a yo-yo, basically. In either elation or depression, according to the Buddhist teachings, there is no real joy—we are just being swept along by our emotional currents. When we are happy we are so happy—and we become completely overwhelmed by that—and when we are unhappy the emotion is so strong that we cannot bear it.

Joy is more about being on an even keel. This does not mean that we cannot sometimes feel really uplifted and joyous. But if we have a joyful disposition—an underlying mental attitude of joy—then we do not completely break down when things do not go our way, or lose it to the other extreme when things go well. Instead there is a sense of equilibrium. The fact is, we do not know what to expect: sometimes things will be wonderful, and other times things will be terrible. But having practiced meditation—having dealt with our depression and other states of mind—there can be that underlying sense of joy.

So dealing with our present situation is the most important thing, according to Buddhism. We should not always be thinking that things should be different, that something else should be happening based on our own wishes. If we stop doing that, we will experience joy.

Along with courage, awareness and joy, we need love and compassion in order to work with our depression. In Buddhism, love and compassion are related to how we view ourselves and others. When we are depressed, we do not feel worthy of receiving love, let alone giving love. We do not feel worthy of receiving the gift of compassion from others, let alone capable of giving the gift of compassion. But through the practice of meditation on love and compassion—called “mind training” in Buddhism—we begin to realize that we have something to give and that we can give it. When that feeling returns, we feel more connected to other beings.

The gift of love or compassion is in the act of giving itself. We do not have to receive something in return to make these gifts worthwhile. The simple existence of others is what makes them worthwhile, because without others we would be solitary, lonely, cut-off and miserable people. Life would be far less rich if other people were not part of our world. It is said in the teachings that even people who cause us difficulties help us to grow if we are able to deal with them properly.

Practicing love and compassion—along with courage, awareness and joy—will keep what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog” at bay. That does not mean we will get rid of our depression overnight, but we do not have to. The negative effects of depression will gradually decrease and our ability to make use of depression in a constructive fashion will increase.

If we are able to meditate and learn to develop courage, awareness, joy, love and compassion, we will grow and depression will dissipate. We do not have to get rid of it—depression will get worn out by itself. That is important. Thinking of depression as an enemy and trying to conquer or overcome it, at least from the Buddhist point of view, is a self-defeating task. Our task in meditation is not to do that, but rather to learn the skills necessary to deal with whatever it is that we are experiencing.