Once I was in a meeting with a publisher to discuss a book I was writing (for which he had paid a tidy sum). He hated it. He hated me. We did not understand each other at all. I came to the meeting having thoughtfully considered his perspective, prepared to defend the points I was passionate about and compromise where possible. He came to the meeting with only two words for me: The first one was “fuck” and the second one was “you.” “Fuck you” is what he said to me. Game over.
I was devastated, reeling, crushed. It was like inviting someone over to meet your newborn (in this case, my book) and having them pick her up out of the crib and throw her on the ground. I left the building sobbing, enraged, certain my life was over, with only my ever-diminishing bank account to keep me company. I hadn’t taken ten steps out of the building when I bumped into my friend Michael. Michael is a deeply practiced and wise practitioner in my Shambhala Buddhist lineage, someone I turn to unhesitatingly for advice and insight into the dharma. He also used to work in publishing and would understand exactly what had just happened. He also didn’t even live in New York City (where this all took place). That he happened to cross my path at that moment was absurdly lucky.
We sat down in a restaurant, and I said, “My meditation practice must be so weak if one person saying two words can knock me down so thoroughly.”
He said, “So you think not getting upset is the sign of a strong practice?” I hoped it was. “It isn’t,” he said. “What matters is how directly and immediately you can bring your attention to what you feel. That is the sign of a strong practice.”
Depending on the quality of the depression, sometimes I can actually do this.
Small depressions offer the perfect opportunities to try. These are the depressions that don’t prevent you from living life as much as they color your experience in a darker shade. They may be situational, the result of not getting into the school of your choice, having an argument with a friend, or screwing up a job interview. Or maybe you’re just kind of constitutionally morose. What helps is to simply turn toward your feeling and, yes, feel it. Allow it. Lean into it, as Pema Chödrön says, without—and this is the key to the whole thing—attaching a narrative story line to it. In other words, feel the feeling and let the story go. When the story wants to come back (“I feel this way because it is her fault,” “I was raised by nincompoops,” “I always attract the wrong person”), let it go and return attention to what you feel, which means what you feel in your body. Place your attention on the sensations (hot, cold, tight, diffuse, in the shoulders, belly, elsewhere) and feel into them, discern their qualities. Become very, very precise about your exploration. This seems to introduce the process of metabolization, a way for you to digest what you are experiencing and convert it to energy.
Medium-sized depressions are not addressed by simply creating room to feel them. That is only the beginning. These depressions could be for any reason or no reason at all. Maybe you were born with a depressive nature. Maybe you don’t like yourself. Maybe you have inner issues that continually create obstacles for you, and you don’t know how to change them. This is the kind of depression that is always hanging around; it lives alongside you. Feeling it is a good start but more is required—making a friendly relationship with it is necessary. Here, making friends doesn’t mean having fun together. It doesn’t even mean liking each other. It means creating space to hang out and to become curious about this strange friend. Our friends like it when we take a warm interest in them without an agenda (in fact, this could be the definition of friendship: warm interest without agenda); our depression likes this, too. We could actually become loving, open, and accommodating toward it and in just this way, develop some agency within our depression rather than being defeated by it. As we do so, we find that we are able to meet others in their depressions and, bit by bit, shift our attention away from ourselves and on to them. Far from making you a goody-goody in yoga pants, this makes you powerful—and feeling powerful is the opposite of feeling depressed. So, surprise, the secret antidote for depression is opening to it and watching it transform into a fount of kindness.
Large depressions also benefit from precision and openness, but something more seems to be needed yet again. These are the kinds of depressions that arise when a parent or child dies or when you learn that you or someone you love is terminally ill. Everything is permanently different, there is no way around it, and there never will be. Or, absent a clear cause, you could be in the midst of a lifelong depressive state that seems to have no beginning, middle, or end. Then what?
Well, I don’t know, but I can tell you what I do when I find myself having fallen off the deep end. I remember something that dharma teacher Reggie Ray said to a student during a month-long meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies. We had been practicing for about two weeks when a young man asked how long he would have to sit there before his agitated, frightening, dark thoughts went away. I mean, even after sitting for five or six hours a day they were unchanged, and he was starting to freak out. What should he do with his thoughts and feelings? Reggie said, “Well, you could always offer them to the deities. They love the display.” At that moment, this seemed like a totally reasonable suggestion, and we all nodded and went on with the retreat.
After I returned home, I reflected on this suggestion with the additional insight that I actually didn’t know what it meant. However, that has not impinged on its helpful nature. In the intervening years, I’ve returned to this idea countless times. When I’m at my lowest and have no more ideas about what to do, I think, “Offer it,” and something shifts. Even if only for a moment, I feel lighter. It’s not a simple offloading into the ether; I intend my feelings as a devotional gift, a kind of mind-prasad. Even though I have no idea how my “gift” could be of any value, I offer it anyway . . . I know not to what or to whom. Maybe it’s the universe. My teacher. Myself. Whatever deity I am meditating on currently, whether peaceful or wrathful. I feel a sense of gratitude that my depression could somehow be turned to grist and that someone or something out there is loving the mere display. I think of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri and Vajrapani seeing, not my emotional puniness or lack of courage, but something now shimmery and now thunderous, now bright and now faint. Bursts of blue or red or green. Fireworks.
I have suggested this tack to students of my own. Most of them don’t share an iconography with me so I ask them, who is your deity? I get all sorts of answers, from Jesus to the Great Mother to no one.
No problem. Offer your depression to that. This is the direction of joy.
Adapted from Susan Piver’s essay,“The Sadness in Bliss,” from “Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression,” edited by Tami Simon, published by Sounds True.
Please note that clinical depression is a medical condition. The article is not intended to provide treatment options for those who may suffer from clinical depression or other forms of mental illness.