Meditation and Depression: Treatment or Torment?

Depression & Anxiety 389 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

Meditation can be effective in treating and dealing with depression, but it also may pose difficult and arguably dangerous challenges for people new to either depression or meditation.

Meditation and Depression: Treatment or Torment?

The question whether meditation is good to treat or counter depression is already long in the tooth. The problem with the answer is in the terms themselves.

People with depression await the day when the experts come up with a better name for it. It’s not just the exasperation of hearing, time and again, from person after person, “Well everybody gets sad sometimes” or the only slightly less infuriating “Well, you have good reasons to be depressed.”

Depression wears many masks, and not all of them are of the crying commedia dell’arte character with the downturned mouth. Add the ingredient of anxiety, which depression so often does, and you get a different figure altogether, one so anxious and “coming out of my skin” that settling in for a good cry looks positively tonic. Depression manifests along a broad spectrum of symptoms.

The same is true with meditation, in the sense that it’s not just one thing. Over the millennia it’s been practiced, it—and its partner, yoga—have been done in a myriad of ways, each with its own name and, often, branches. Significantly,  legitimate forms of meditation rarely claim that its way is either the best way, or the one right way, to do it. What’s a seeker to do?

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The thousand-fold path

Let’s assume, for the purposes and duration of this post, that a common, even identifying trait of meditation is stillness. Surely that’s the picture most people have of it, perhaps in contrast to its mate, yoga, which connotes movement and, not infrequently these days, extreme anaerobic movement, sometimes in intensely pre-heated rooms.

Take into acccount for the moment the agitated or anxiety-fueled forms of depression, which are all too common. For the symptomatic person, sitting still might look more like a form of torture. Stress positions! For the person with that particular symptom array, even vipassana meditation, which typically involves an ordinary activity such as walking, but at a speed so slow that a novice practitoner might find it challenging simply to maintain balance. Performing an action that slowly might look no more possible, or likely, than flying.

If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that there are literally countless forms of meditation. Surely, you might reasonably think, one of them might be right for you, even with—or for—your depression. And you might be right.

It’s a practice—and takes practice

But it’s worth remembering that meditation is referred to as a “practice” for reasons. It’s perfectly legitimate to call whatever it is you do meditation the moment you sit down—or assume some other posture—to do it. But seasoned meditators will tell you some version of the bad old joke of the guy with the violin case asking the passing New Yorker, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer/punch line: “Practice.”

“Everybody’s a beginner at some point.” “You’ve got to start somewhere.” True enough; you won’t catch us arguing with any of that. But it’s the experienced meditators who say that what they seek, perpetually, is “beginner’s mind,” which sounds a lot purer and more innocent than it often feels to actual beginners. It’s what those gurus will also admit is “advanced work.”

And if it’s mindfulness you’re after, preferably starting right this minute (the only time it can happen, after all), just Google it and find a path to mixed-mindedness. Google "mindfulness" and what you'll likely get is “too much information.”

If there’s an inherent problem for new practitioner of mindfulness or meditation who’s also dealing with depression, it’s that it’s one of the easiest activities in the world to reinforce the idea that you’re not doing it right. Or, that it doesn’t, or won’t work for you. Or, worst of all, that you’re not good enough for it.

A story to bear in mind

An English-born, Thai-Theravadan-Buddhist monk we knew was not the hermit type. He went from place to place establishing monasteries and, wherever he was, frequently gave public dharma talks following guided meditations. He was hardly a joker, but his soft, sly humor helped hundreds new to the practice "lighten up."

People forever asked him technical questions about meditation. Patiently, he answered them. But such as he gave advice it was to keep in mind that it was a practice rather than a goal-oriented “activity.”

His message included thoughts along the lines of “It’s a process” and “It gets better.” But without resorting to these words, he was always careful to deliver some form of the message that “Practice does not make perfect.”

One of his favorite stories was of the woman in her 80s who came to one of his monasteries hoping to become an initiate. Rather than telling her right off that that would not be possible for many reasons, it occurred to him instead to listen to her.

She had been a professional singer, with a long career and all the fame she had wanted, but she was still looking. Then she interrupted herself with a statement that got the monk’s full attention. “You know, it was time for me to quit performing when I did,” she said. “The voice was no longer reliable. But even now, some mornings I get it up, and it’s all there. I could sing Brünnhilde, Isolde.”

“It’s more like that,” the monk told his dharma-talk auditors. To be a monk in my tradition means that you’re a regular, disciplined meditator. And some days, when you sit down to meditate, it’s like she was saying. It’s like you picked up where you left off. You have no sense of lapsed time and feel in harmony with everything.

“But as easily, in no time at all you’re thinking you could start your year-long silent meditation retreat. Like maybe even tomorrow. And there it is. Monkey-brain. Back, right on schedule. Off into the future. Thinking things you’d be embarrassed to tell your superior—except that he’d just laugh, knowingly. So you’re back to the basics: "Thinking. Let it come; then let it go.”

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Slow is good

An idea that’s gaining ground in the depression-treating community is almost as simple as that. Don’t rush things.

The idea doesn’t reduce itself to any one precept—least of all, the one that insists, Don’t start any other kind of treatment until the medications are working. Such as medications are even the issue of the moment, there are lots of things that can be done with and for and by the person with depression before the meds “take,” only beginning with listening, compassionately.

Professionals who have been treating people with depression for decades know that there’s plenty that can be done with and for a person new to depression—or a person in relapse. Only at the top of a long list are 1) helping them understanding what’s going on with them (including as individuals) and 2) letting them know they’re not alone—and that they don’t have to get through it alone.

There’s a valid place for talk from the beginning, but it may not start with probing into the deeper reasons depression has arrived—or has always been there. Letting the underlying factors surface as and when they do can be the therapist’s version of “When the student is ready, the teacher comes.”

If you’re a newcomer to meditation, start slow

To be clear, we’re not saying, “Don’t meditate”—or anything like it. What we are saying is closer to the idea that, like the meds, it’s fine to start when the time comes; just don’t expect same-day or next-day results.

If the idea of “sitting,” as the experienced mediators call it, is anathema to you, or seems out of the question, try taking a walk, or doing aerobics at first. There are fully appropriate activities for countering or living with anxiety and depression that also involve putting your focus elsewhere--that is, other than on how you feel.

We remember our friend, the most accomplished meditator we know, telling us as we began exercising to deal with depression after years of not having exercised, “When you get in the pool, starting by walking from one end of the pool to the other and back, and stop when your body tells you to. I guarantee that the next day you’ll feel the same muscle soreness as if you’d lifted weights. Keep following your body’s lead.”

With respect to meditation, don’t try to start with a 30-minute, stationary sit. The problem with silent, sitting meditation in the early stages of depression is that the negative thinking and rumination that are at the heart of depression can take over. Like nature, only more cruelly, depression hates a void and is only too happy to fill it with a nagging negative thought or feeling.

Such as meditation is, or seems, a reflective activity for you, choose something positive to reflect on before you sit and stop meditating when the thinking turns negative, even if it’s after just a few minutes. Taking time takes time. And for most people, the best positive thing to reflect on is something specific for which you are grateful. In time you can add to that something that you know is a good thing about yourself.

Beyond that, what’s safest to recommend early on is a mantra-based meditation, and then for a set period of time. A mantra is a word or two—sometimes not even a “real” word, but a sound you can hear yourself make internally—one of whose purposes is to replace, or supplant, verbalized thoughts.

Easily the most famous form of it is Transcendental Meditation, which for many practitioners brings the further benefit of goal-less conscious breathing. But even it is something you probably should not try on your own, unless you’re returning to it after considerable past experience.

So is meditation dangerous?

No, of course not. But neither is it “kidstuff.” It’s a powerful tool anyone would be fortunate to have in a familiar toolbox. But it’s the extreme opposite of a quick fix. And, as we’ve suggested, for people with certain symptoms of depression, it can be, if not harmful or “asking for trouble,” simply unhelpful or overly challenging early on.

Experienced, practiced, practicing meditators could do few other things more beneficial to retrieving or sustaining their emotional or spiritual health than continuing or returning to a seasoned practice of meditation or mindfulness. They keys are humility and positivity, both most often learned qualities--and often learned through meditation.

We’ve met a woman who can credibly claim, with lab results, that she reversed an HIV infection through meditation alone. And it was in the early days, when HIV was thought untreatable and considered a death sentence. She has the lab results to prove it.

But the thing is, she never talks about it or hauls out the “proof” to convince anyone else of anything, least of all about her “powers.” As tellingly, she hasn’t lightened up on her meditation practice since she got the negative—which is to say positive—lab results.

But if anything, the greater wisdom is that of the monk. Mediation won’t fix you but it may well help you clear a space between you and what you (or your depression) think ails you. With, and over, time. You’ll know when you’re ready because at that point you won’t be able not to.