“Marie” had suffered from depression for many years.
In fact, for as long as she could remember she was bothered by a nagging sense of being incomplete. She did her best to be present and giving in her relationships with others, but she still felt a little empty inside.
She found herself crying at times and did not know why. Marie is certainly not alone in her despair. So how can she and many others like her overcome depression and progress towards wellness?
Like Marie, we all experience the pain and suffering of depression. Depression seems to be a universal malady for mankind. For some, the experience of depression is limited, but for others the anguish of depression can last for many years.
There are coping strategies that are helpful in one’s efforts to overcome depression—but first let’s explore the dynamics of depression.
Most depression is caused by losing something. There can be the loss of a parent during childhood, or the loss of a loved one at any time within one’s life. Similarly, when a relationship with a significant other ends we may feel hurt and angry. For some, abandonment or abuse can trigger depression. The circumstances are different for each person.
The symptoms of depression can include sadness that does not go away, low self-esteem, feeling empty, feeling out-of-control or having chronic low energy. In the face of traumatic events and loss it is normal to experience a period of grieving and sorrow. However, if the process of grieving does not follow a natural course towards resolution and acceptance, a serious problem with depression can manifest.
From a Buddhist point of view, depression is a condition of ego. When depression occurs the ego is not open. Rather it is in a contracted and painful state of existence. Depression is not one’s natural state of being. One’s natural state of being is to manifest the essential radiant beauty of the Self. Depression acts to cover the Self with layers of suffering, thereby obscuring the brilliant light that naturally resides within.
Typically, the ego becomes quite defensive when affronted by an unexpected loss. The ego will resort to a variety of means in an attempt to undue a perceived insult or loss. Basically, the ego is comprised of a person’s life story, with all its hopes, fears and expectations. One’s personal life story is supported by continually thinking about the various events within the life story. If one’s life story has become damaged by an unexpected event, the ego will engage in any measure necessary to preserve itself. We must realize that the ego fears nothing more than its own demise.
The ego uses many tactics to preserve itself. These tactics include; blaming others for one’s problems, wanting to be rescued by others, telling oneself to just be strong and get over it, dwelling in negative thoughts, burying painful feelings, denying having a problem and resisting help. The ego seems to have endless ploys that only serve to prolong one’s suffering. We must learn how to let go of the suffering of ego to experience wellness.
Depression can be a severe condition, which leads one to various avenues of escape. Oftentimes, a severely depressed person will resort to alcohol or drugs to temporarily assuage unbearable mental and emotional pain. However, alcohol or drugs will not offer lasting solace from depression. Unfortunately, using alcohol or drugs only prolongs and intensifies depression. If a depressed person continues to use alcohol or drugs, the problems become compounded. A combination of depression and substance abuse can become a very serious problem, and for some a downward spiral.
Part of the treatment of depression is recognizing the symptoms. Likewise, we must acknowledge the enduring pain of not treating the root cause of depression. From a Buddhist perspective it can be said that the root cause of depression and suffering is undue attachment to ego. Acknowledging this fundamental mistake and realizing that we are not ego is the first step. We must find a way to let go of ego and embrace our true identity as the radiant Self.
Modern psychology describes three tried and true treatments for depression. Those are psychotherapy, antidepressant medication and being active. Also, a combination of those treatments can be better than any single treatment approach. For some, a daily practice of mindfulness meditation is also very helpful. Severe depression should always be treated by a mental health professional.
Some insightful people are capable of using these techniques on their own to treat the symptoms of depression. However, many people will need the help of a trained psychotherapist to keep from getting stuck in the treatment process. Occasionally, those struggling with depression can be helped by taking antidepressant medication. Finally, anyone suffering from depression can be helped by engaging in various life activities, such as walking, hiking or yoga. Sitting on the sofa and worrying will only prolong the misery of depression.
There is another method for treating depression. Mindfulness meditation practice, which is grounded in maintaining awareness in the present moment, is an effective treatment of mild to moderate depression. The key here is maintaining awareness in the present moment without allowing discursive negative thoughts to interfere. In this way, present moment awareness becomes a wisdom sword that cuts away the habit of negative thinking. By this practice the weeds of negative thinking die away from lack of attention and the beautiful rose of the radiant Self comes into full bloom.
The caveat to practicing mindfulness meditation as a treatment modality for depression is to not allow negative thinking to overcome your meditation practice. The ego will automatically attempt to subvert your attempts at focusing awareness in the present moment. So, we make a diligent effort at letting go of negative thinking in preference to being focused with clear awareness in the present moment.
Mindfulness meditation lends itself well to a combination with other treatment approaches that can be used concomitantly. The key is to not give up. We keep our mindfulness meditation practice focused and alive. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the breath while letting go of negative thoughts and emotions. This practice is an effective means of clearing the mind and treating depression. By watering the rose the weeds die out for lack of attention.
Marie had tried to overcome depression on her own, but somehow she felt stuck. When she experienced the loss of a boyfriend her ability to be functional in her life was compromised. She started to drink alcohol daily as a means of coping with the painful emotions that were lurking inside. She felt that she might lose her job. Marie finally reached a point where things were only getting worse, so she engaged the help of a psychotherapist.
Thankfully for Marie, her therapist quickly recognized Marie’s strong points as a means of treating a worsening depression. Marie liked yoga, so she was encouraged to attend yoga classes several times per week. Marie agreed to stop using alcohol as a means of escaping from difficult thoughts and feelings. Then a remarkable thing happened.
Marie’s therapist taught a basic class in meditation once a week at a local yoga studio. Attending the class, Marie learned how to sit upright while focusing her attention on the breath. Marie learned how to relax into the feeling of her body being still, while letting her attention rest on the inhalation and exhalation of breathing. When thoughts arose, Marie learned how to just let go of the thoughts and return her attention to the breath. With practice, Marie learned how to become still for a period of time during meditation. She liked the feeling of serenity. She developed a daily meditation practice.
With therapy, activity and a daily mindfulness meditation practice Marie was able to move forward with her life. She no longer felt the need for alcohol as a means of escaping painful emotions. She was able to grieve the loss of her boyfriend and find self-acceptance. Marie discovered that practicing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis helped her to resolve the chronic feelings of emptiness that had plagued her for so long. Most delightful of all, Marie was beginning to experience an awareness of her radiant Self when meditating in stillness.
With time, as depression heals, one returns to being alive in the present moment. A sense of openness and well being returns too. Rather than ruminating about the fears from the past and the hopes for the future, we become awakened in the present moment. The present moment becomes the focus of our life. As depression resolves the spontaneous joy of being alive and well arises. The light of the Self shines brightly.
The clouds of despair,
Dissipate before the Sun,
Of the brilliant Self.
Bradly Jay Keller, M.D. has been practicing meditation since age 17. He finds a daily meditation practice to be a vital part of his spiritual life. He is a practicing psychiatrist in California. He has several self-published books available on Amazon.