Lion's Roar

Forum Essays: Depression

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to depression and mental illness.

By Lion’s Roar

Depression is violent and merciless. For anyone who has struggled with serious depression, the idea that it could possibly serve as an incentive to meditate is to grossly misunderstand just how debilitating major depression is. The constant barrage of negative thoughts seem to form an unbearable “helmet of doom,” and it is simply not possible to become curious about these thoughts and wish to explore them, as is often suggested for meditation practice. There is simply no space and no ground for this kind of practice in depression.

Because there is so much emphasis on the mind in Buddhism, there is a tendency to believe that if you cannot overcome your negativity, you must not be doing something right. If I could only meditate properly! If I could only spend more time at it! These laments are just variations of the same loop of negative thinking. People who imagine there is a bottom to “hit” before one can get better do not know that depression is a bottomless pit. There is no bottom to the dark. The worst of it is that you just keep falling.

For years my attempts to “overcome” my depression, fueled by my misunderstanding of Buddhist practice as some kind of self-improvement regime, caused me to reject the idea of taking medication because I believed that my problem was a weak mind. Nope, my problem was a lack of love. The kind of love that is fundamental in order to live, let alone foster spiritual development.

My depression was treated successfully with medication. It is not the answer to my problems, but I know that because of the medication, I will never suffer incapacitating depression again. My practice, which I used to think of as a collection of sadhanas and mantra recitations, is now focused on developing compassion for myself. After eighteen years, the first principle of the path begins to dawn.

Kathleen Ivanoff
Ann Arbor, Mich.

I began meditating at age nineteen. Meditation instantly became my life raft, the first hope I’d found for the darkness of depression. I pursued Vipassana with zeal, sitting many retreats. Meditation helped me learn to slowly decrease the severity, frequency, and duration of my depressive episodes. I began therapy about a decade into meditation practice and for the last fifteen years, the two have worked in tandem, like a healing tag team to unwind the tangle of the depressive thoughts. Therapy and meditation superbly balance each other in their insights: therapy addresses areas that meditation can miss (family patterns, underlying beliefs, and thought habits), and meditation addresses areas that therapy can miss (subtle nuances of how thoughts and conditionality arise).

And yet, despite the strong mindfulness I developed over decades, I still encountered bouts of suicidal thoughts. After talking with my endocrinologist, I decided to try medications. I figured I had nothing to lose, except, of course, my pride at being a medication-free meditator all these years. Swallowing my pride, I swallowed a small dose of Zoloft. Medication became the crown jewel of my years of meditation practice. On the medication, for the first time in my life, I saw what it was like to be outside the depressed mind. I immediately thought, “Oh my god, this is what it’s like to be normal!” It was as if all these years people had been describing a sunny day to me, and I’d been imagining what that was, but not really quite knowing, and now, here was a real sunny day. Finally, it was clear. From this moment on, I knew where I was trying to get to; I knew what non-depressed mind felt like, and looked like, and I began to orient myself on remembering this. I only stayed on the meds for about one year after this insight, because once I knew how to find the joyful mind, the mindfulness helped me stick with it and that was really all I needed.

The last step in my journey has been to see that the depression, the joy, the process of working with the mind, the healing itself, is also empty. In working with teacher Adyashanti this year, he told me, “There is no way out.” This got me angry, and I said, “How can you say this! The Buddha found a way out of suffering.” And he replied, “This is all there is. This is it.” Later, after some frustrated thoughts, I saw that I was using my spiritual practice as a way to get away from depression, not with suicide as my maternal lineage had done, but with the hope of moving beyond it to some enlightened place of peace. With my teacher’s challenge of “no way out,” I was able to see that I could let the whole project of depression and “somewhere to get to” drop away. I learned I could rest in who I was, as I was, depression or not, and it was fine. I didn’t need to keep tweaking and fixing things. I saw that depression has never been, nor ever will be, who I am.

Amy Schmidt
Barre, Mass.

Depression has destroyed my life on four separate occasions. When it strikes, everything falls apart. I can’t function. I lose my job, my bank account, my home, everything. Whatever I have accomplished, it all goes down the tubes. I am therefore highly motivated to find a remedy.

I’ve been practicing meditation for twenty-five years. I think I’m finally seeing the payoff (if there is a “payoff” to simply sitting there with nothing in particular happening and nothing to achieve). My particular depression is biological in nature. I will probably have it as long as I ride around in this particular body. Yet there is a certain pattern to my depression as an activity. To the extent that I follow the pattern, the depression turns heavy and destroys me. To the extent that I abstain, it comes and goes.

Every thought I have is self-referential. Every single one is about what I want, what I hate, what I believe. Even the ones that seem to be about something else are presented to my mind from my own viewpoint. It’s all me, me, me.

Every time I let go of a thought or a feeling and return to the object of meditation—no matter what the object is, no matter what the distraction is—I’m letting go of a little piece of my own storyline, clumps of thought and feeling, and just more ego. Can I let go of that entirely? Not really. Not fully. Not yet. But every time I sit down and get quiet, I’m working on it.

John Peddicord
Baltimore, Md.

I wish I could say that when a golf-ball-sized tumor was found in my breast, I was able to go home and meditate and loosen the grip of the emotional reactions that overwhelmed me. I did try to sit. But, as I awaited surgery, the emotions of hope and fear became so strong that even ordinary household tasks seemed overwhelming, and the slightest thing sent me into floods of tears. I was full of regret at not having practiced more when I had more favorable circumstances. My panic and depression only increased as I felt my practice slip away. To my chagrin, I got through the pre-surgery anxiety on Valium. I am the mother of a young child and it became quite clear that I needed help, chemical and otherwise, in order to be there for him during this period.

The night after the surgery, I unexpectedly found a new resolve to resume the path of meditation practice. Trying to distract myself from the pain and shock of surgery, I turned on the television. A special on the AIDS epidemic in Africa poured forth a tale of suffering and woe that made my own plight seem like a pebble on the beach. My chief terror since the discovery of my tumor was that I would leave behind a motherless young child. Now the pain of millions of motherless children was streaming into my living room and into my heart that had been locked tight to others since the discovery of my tumor. As my heart opened, I remembered again something that I had forgotten, in my panic and depression, the heart of meditation—love, compassion, and bodhichitta.

My terror at leaving a motherless child is, I have learned, a basis for connecting to all sentient beings who have been a mother to me “from time without beginning.” And this, I feel very fortunate to have realized, is a great place to start into the most profound and healing meditation practice for developing love, compassion, bodhichitta—tonglen.

Tish Shute
New York, N.Y.

I experience depression in phases. Phase 1 starts with a dull listlessness that settles like a mist. My voice becomes gray and a heaviness and weariness sits lumplike in some vague place inside me. I still manage to sit twice a day but it becomes a struggle, dull and lifeless. I become more and more critical of the quality of my practice and it deteriorates accordingly, providing yet more fuel for the criticism. A creeping sense of uselessness overtakes me.

In phase 2, I wake up and I’m paralyzed. On occasion, I’ve managed a journal entry: “Bone-crushingly depressed. Can’t write.” My voice turns to sludge. An inner darkness churns and heaves and aches. Ignoring it is impossible. Doing anything about it is impossible. A wasteland surrounds me, blows through me. I am unable to remember ever having felt different. I see with awful certainty that I will always feel like this, that I always have felt like this. My life was never worth living and never will be. Everything I do will fail, everything I’ve ever done has failed. I am powerless, just as an alcoholic is powerless over alcohol. Despair.

In phase 3, something drags me to my meditation stool and I sit, a lump of mud, engulfed in gloom. Thoughts of how I should sit, how useless I am, who I hate—all this goes quiet. I haven’t the energy to criticize. The final clunking cylinder grinds to a halt. I give up the struggle. Misery sits in misery, and something moves. The edifice of the depression is still in place, but something is different. A few more sittings, a couple of more days, and the depression slowly starts to dissolve. It leaves a lurking trace for a while, but new life flows, and the wasteland takes on a wild beauty.

Does sitting help? I know that not sitting doesn’t.

Dave Fox
Bangalore, India

Meditation is not my cure for depression. It helps. It shows me the way, the path toward acceptance and equanimity, but it’s not “the cure.” And I think it’s probably just as well. As I’ve learned over and over in my practice: the larger the problem of my misery looms, the larger the solution that is needed to “cure” it. If I can rest with my mind as it is—tumultuous, jumpy, inconsistent, full of fear or exhilaration, rage or sadness—I can then equally see, feel, and accept the rest: peace, clarity, and the equanimity of seeing all of this together. And even if occasionally I should miss a morning’s sit, I miss it, with a longing, an unsettling that brings me back to my chair by the end of that same day. When I wake with the daily demons of indecision, blame, despair, revulsion in all its guises, I sit. I sit with them, through them, and in a certain sense in spite of them. I don’t sit because of the pain or sadness, I sit because it’s the only effective way I know to learn how to move on, to take the next step, to live and thrive by surviving the dark blackness that sits so comfortably close.

My practice is my companion that I can count on for comfort, for clarity, for patience, and, most of all, for acceptance and open-heartedness. While meditation is not, and cannot be, my cure, it does hold my hand as I move forward, letting go of the weight that has held me for so long.

David Williams
Boston, Mass.

Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and have been struggling to learn how to live in balance ever since. Western medicine, which mainly consists of innumerable psychiatric medications, many of which have awful side effects, has been of limited value to me.

Last year, I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. I was hypomanic when I decided to sign up for the class (feeling speeded up and great), but in clinical depression when the class started (feeling extremely flat and slowed down). At first I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to drive the thirty minutes on the freeway required to get to the class, let alone sit still and pay attention for three hours. To my great surprise, the relaxation tools we used in the class helped me far more than I had expected.

By doing the body scan, at times I was able to reach a sense of deep relaxation that I was not accustomed to feeling in depression. But the most helpful tool was meditation and I have since used meditation to start my day. I have found it has enabled me to not have my repetitive negative thoughts upon waking. I still take medication, but my experience has been that meditation in combination with medication has been far more useful and effective for me than medication alone.

Wendy Cheit
Kensington, Calif.


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Lion’s Roar

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