Training with Depression

This article has grown out of several conversations that I’ve had with various members of the Sangha in recent years, which led to a Discussion Morning at the Priory in January 2018 (and my thanks go to those people who attended the discussion and made valuable contributions). This article, like the discussion, focusses mainly on depression, but most of what is mentioned could be applied to any mental health issue. It is offered in the hope that it may be helpful to a wider audience. Rev. Leoma.

When we have been training for some time and we find that we are still contending with a condition like depression, we may feel a sense of failure or inadequacy and doubts may arise, either about the practice or our ability to do it. “Meditation hasn’t solved my depression.” “I shouldn’t still be depressed after all this time – I must be a dreadful trainee.” “I can’t be doing it right – what else should I be doing?” These negative judgements add an extra layer of suffering. This can be compounded when we are encouraged to be bright-minded or to sit with a bright mind.

Meditation may not have an obvious immediate effect on depression. It’s not a quick fix, although sometimes meditation can have a noticeable impact on our mood, perhaps helping us to be calmer and stiller. But that’s actually not the most important thing. Doing meditation can be thought of more like following a healthy diet. When we take up such a diet, we are often looking to its long-term effects and trusting that it’s doing some good, even if we’re not necessarily aware of the benefits. In fact, for much of the time, the diet may be a slog, although sometimes we may be motivated to continue by an obvious improvement, such as weight loss. With meditation in the context of depression, we are also in for the long haul. It’s not that meditation necessarily solves or gets rid of the depression, but rather that there is an acceptance that depression is part of what is here now. By meditating, there is a softening, a loosening, an opening out, that brings us to this acceptance. Then the depression matters less; it’s more in the background and we learn to live with it. Through meditation, there is a falling away of how much “how I feel” matters. Then, however we feel, however unpleasant it may be, we can cope with it, live with it. This is actually what it means to be bright-minded: to keep going, however we are feeling, because we know that there is something more important than how we are feeling.

In zazen, we keep coming back to being fully present here now. We ask “what is this here now?” and whatever we find, whatever is present, we accept it completely and sit with it. There is just this here now, not what we think should be here now or what we would like to be here now. We acknowledge and accept it, without judgement. We let it be, let it pass through, let it go, let it fall away. The vital aspect of zazen is letting go of deliberate thinking, the trains of thought that we so readily get caught up in. When the thoughts start to ensnare us, we don’t have to believe them, but instead we can question them and disengage from them. This is part of the exploration of “what is this?”. As we go on in practice and as we understand more what our mind is doing, we can do this more readily and let the thoughts go. Then we can be with the feelings that are present and often this means sitting with discomfort of varying degrees. But if we’re not adding fuel to the feelings, not feeding them with the thoughts, we become aware that they too come and go. The feelings loosen up and no longer seem solid or fixed. Eventually they can be known to be flimsy, insubstantial, impermanent and they can dissolve and disperse. In this way, through zazen, the thoughts and the feelings come to disturb us less and they matter less. They are more like the passing scenery and they don’t need to be the driving force in our life. There may still be plenty of times when we seem unable to completely let go of what arises. But then we can soften whatever is present, so that there are no hard edges. We can let it be, in open hands, and gently accept it. If we do this, eventually it will loosen and disperse.

An important aspect of sitting in this way is to have compassion and kindness for ourselves, along with much patience. When we sit in zazen and explore “what is this?”, we may not like what we find. We come to realise how unpleasant it can be inside our heads, with all the judgements, opinions, criticism and complaining that goes on. Most uncomfortable of all can be the voice of self-blame and self-criticism, especially when we make mistakes and “get it wrong, yet again”. Then, we can have a tendency to beat ourselves up and give ourselves a hard time. Developing compassion for ourselves begins with noticing all of this, gently acknowledging it and not judging it. We can question the unkind and unhelpful thoughts and let them go. We can come to see how fear underlies so much of this and so we can have more sympathy for ourselves. We just sit in the middle of whatever feelings are present, such as fear, anger, or despair. We sit still and let zazen do its work, so that the compassion that is at the heart of our being can show itself.

In zazen, there is the bit that we can do something about: we work on being as still as we can with whatever arises, so that we can explore “what is this?”. There is also a bit that is outside our control. An analogy that I’ve found helpful recently is to think of zazen as a bowl of water. We work to keep the water as still as possible. Thoughts can arise and pass through without affecting the water, like a needle being dropped into the bowl. But more often, what arises is like a pebble thrown into the bowl, with plenty of ripples. If we just sit as still as we can, the pebble can settle at the bottom of the bowl and we can accept the pebble’s presence, let it be. We can trust zazen to do its work and eventually the pebble will dissolve. If our job is to be as still as we can, sometimes we may need to employ skilful means to help us. If we’re very agitated, for example, we may choose to do some walking meditation before we go and sit. In the case of depression and anxiety, there may be a role for counselling or psychotherapy and/or medication, to help us become still enough to sit with what is arising.

As human beings, we want to understand why. “Why am I like this?” “Why am I having to deal with this?” We think that when we know why, the problem will be solved and it will go away. But something more is needed: the letting go that is found in the depths of zazen. Understanding certainly helps and so counselling and psychotherapy can play an important part in managing depression or anxiety. Understanding can bring us more rapidly to acceptance and to having compassion for ourselves and for what we are having to deal with. That understanding can enable us to sit still with what arises, so that we can explore “what is this?”. Then we can be with what is and we can let zazen do its job. It is in the heart of zazen that the necessary transformation and falling away takes place.

So, it is fine to consider taking any external help that may be available. Any of us may need such help at some stage of our life. It may be that we just need a friend to talk with. Or we may need to try professional counselling or psychotherapy or another of the talking therapies. Or perhaps we require medication to help us, at least for a while. Antidepressants are part of the help that is available. Only we can know whether the benefits outweigh the side effects in our own specific case; only we are sitting in the middle of the particular conditions that make up our life. It’s the same process when deciding whether or not to take any other medication, e.g. painkillers. Quality of life is an important consideration: what is my quality of life when I’m not on the antidepressant and how might this be different on medication? To start taking medication may seem like conceding defeat or admitting failure, but from another perspective, it may actually be a means of having compassion for ourselves. We do our best to sit still with “what is it good to do?” and we make a decision. Whatever skilful means we may employ, it’s for the time being, not necessarily a lifetime’s commitment – we can continue to check from time to time whether it’s still good to carry on with it.

If depression is part of our koan, what we are training with, then it is also our gateway to the truth. One of our Sangha expressed this very well when they wrote that training “opens up the contracted state of depression into one of hope and potential and a bigger perspective. I tend to say to myself nowadays, ‘these feelings are there for a reason, let me just sit with them and listen if there is something they are trying to tell me’.” In zazen, we sit with what is and explore the sense of “me”. We come to see that whatever arises or whatever seems to make up “me” in this moment is not as substantial as we thought. It’s not nothing, but it’s not something either; it is ungraspable. We continue to explore this, not by analysing, in a subject/object way, but by direct experiencing, without separation, without division. Whatever is this here now, however unpleasant, we can come to know that it is the truth, it is not separate from the truth, and so it becomes our gateway. This takes time, but with patience and persistence, we can know that this here now is enough, however unsatisfactory or inadequate our “self” seems to be. Whatever we are experiencing right now is our gateway; there is no other. We can only dwell where we are, be where we are. As we continue the exploration of zazen, the questioning of “what is this?” becomes second nature. We may still experience feelings of depression or anxiety, but we can live with them. By sitting with these feelings, in the heart of zazen, there is an immediacy that helps us to go beyond the churning of the mind. This as it is is enough.