Living Unbound Q&A: Meditation and Depression

A Living Unbound Visitor Asks:

“Here is a question: It is suggested in many traditions that if one is experiencing true depression (not just a blue mood, but an actual disorder, where one can’t feel any pleasure), since the meditation will amplify the inward ruminations of the depressed person. I have through personal experience verified this for myself–over a year of meditation did nothing to keep me from spiraling downwards, and in fact made me feel worse. I forced it in an effort to overcome my situation, but it just prolonged the experience.

What has made it to start to lift is a combination–medication, physical exercise, good diet (note: diet and exercise alone were nothing for severe depression!), therapy, and doing the internal work with the help of these external things.

So–any suggestions for one that is truly, clinically depressed, for whom meditation will not help or make things worse? I think meditation is risky in such cases–with a suicidal person, downright dangerous.

Should they focus on just connecting with things that make them feel better, or are there any other spiritual practices they could do (besides meditation)?”

Living Unbound Answers:

Thanks for asking this question; it’s a very good one.

Per your mention of potential danger, yes: when dealing with significant depression, it’s always wise to get input from a trained professional (medical doctor, psychiatrist, etc.) regarding best courses of action, overall. And yes, some people do find that meditation can seem to make depression worse. However, meditation is also one of the most proven practices for opening to Living Unbound.

Most of us who deal with depression have a custom-mix of factors that caused the depression, and a custom-mix of factors that keep the depression in place:

Psychological tendencies, lifestyle induced biochemical issues (i.e. sedentary lifestyle, poor eating or sleep habits, alcohol or drug use, etc.), other medical issues which contribute to depression-related symptoms, and so on. And so, for many of us, a custom-mix of changes, ranging from becoming more active, to becoming more social, to positive adjustments in diet and activity level, to positive adjustments in mind-habits, to starting daily spiritual practices, is usually what it most helpful in stepping free from our sense of depression.

When we go through a depression we have a tendency to pull ourselves inward, to move into a shell, so to speak, and we tend to do a lot of thinking inside this shell; thinking that is usually not pleasant or positive, to say the least. Hence diet, exercise, doing things that involve being more active and outwardly-oriented, such as being with friends, or otherwise connecting with people, maybe taking up a new sport or recreational hobby;  doing things that lift us up and get us active. These things are important, and can be as important, or more so, than medication alone, depending upon the exact nature and depth of our depression (if we decide with our doctor that medication may be useful).

This is the cycle we talk about in the first lesson in the Teachings section of Level 1, The Cyclic Nature of Living.  Depression pulls us toward inertia, and so its “antidote” is that which take us into activity, away from inertia. Exercise, work, activities with friends, spiritual practices, and so on, all contribute to restoring the natural cycle, with balance between activity and rest.

If we decide with our doctor to start anti-depressant medication, there is often an initial period where the medication may seem to be working very well. Many of us have heard, and or experienced, people who start on anti-depressant medication say: “This medication I am on is really working!”

However soon, with many of us, the medication is not as effective as it was when we started it. There are many reasons for this dynamic, and this is why doctors and patients so often go through multiple trials of anti-depressants. The main reason that anti-depressants tend to have temporary effects, is that our conditioned thinking patterns essentially re-create the depression in ways that medication can’t overcome. We think ourselves back to the place we started and no medication can get us out of that place. Changes in our activity level, and increases in connecting with people may offer relief of the worst of our symptoms, but only permanent changes in attachment to thought patterns, and permanent biological changes brought about by effective practices of various types, can permanently alleviate depression.

This is because these permanent psychological and biological changes eradicate the underlying causes of depression. We can change medication several times, but if we don’t supplement it with identifying and dissolving our conditioned mind-shafts, we will just think ourselves back to where we began, depression-wise. So-called “talk therapy” can help, too, but the quality of this therapy varies widely. And usually, the patient is not taught how to think in ways that facilitate freedom from depression.

This is a key part of what Living Unbound is here to do: to help us all find, utilize and share the tools which help us all in Living Unbound, at every level of body, mind and spirit.

A bit of inner silence goes a long way in helping us to see the mind-stories, mind-labels and mind-shafts, which re-create depression. When we meditate, attention moves inward, and any depressing thinking may be even more noticeable, and therefore may seem worse than ever. This can give us a sense of not only worsening depression, but also a sense that it’s the meditation that is making our depression worse.

However, if we can consciously meditate for a few minutes by focusing on our breathing, or on a mantra, we will notice that we can actually experience a gap in the thinking. Even few seconds of experiencing a gap is a way to touch our inner silence. Our inner silence is past the depressed layer, it is not touched by thoughts or depression.

And so, meditation helps us know the part of ourselves that is free from depression, and it helps us notice the mind patterns that keep us bound to the long shaft of depression, while we’re in it.

Once we see through the illusion of the shaft of depression, then, even when we do feel depressed, it is only that moment of depression we live though. We don’t mentally pull in the previous 20 years of depression into this current moment of depression. This results in the current moment of depression not getting the energy of the memories of the past 20 years of depression; it is not connected. One moment of depression is a lot easier to deal with than 20 years of depression. It then gets easier and easier to handle this single moment, if and when it arises, and it gets easier to release it, and to let the next/current moment just be what it is, without automatically bringing depression-enhancing memories and thinking into it.

However, in order to see any of this, getting in touch with our silence for a few minutes is essential. Without touching our inner silence ever more deeply over time, we can only cycle between activity and inertia, and depression will always return, or have the possibility of returning. However, touching our inner silence helps us to experience the part of ourselves that is ever free from depression. Inner silence is the doorway to Living Unbound, to Freedom Beyond Imagination in our own experience, in reality.

And we don’t have to practice 20 minutes of mantra meditation, especially when just starting or when we feel like we are going through a depressive phase; even 2 to 5 minutes twice a day, of breath or mantra meditation will help us to connect with our inner silence, our true nature.

The few minutes of suggested meditation is to simply touch the stillness, our own inner silence. One moment of experiencing stillness has more power than the mind can think. This stillness helps us see though the workings of the mind, by giving us a vantage point beyond and before it, and most importantly, by allowing us to experience that there is actually a part of ourselves that is actually, ever free from depression or the possibility of depression.

And, over time, meditation literally facilitates changes in the body-mind at every level, which can ultimately eradicate the underlying causes of depression.

A good analogy might be:

Starting daily walks is clearly something that can be helpful toward relieving depression. However, we might find that we tend to think in depressing ways while walking, and decide that walking is making our depression worse, when the walking is actually helping, and only our thinking is worsening our sense of depression.

Mantra-based meditation can be helpful in cases of depression for many, because focus on the mantra helps to prevent the mind from dwelling on depressing thoughts. However, sometimes meditation itself can cause temporary discomfort mentally and/or emotionally. Yet, like dwelling on certain depression-enhancing thoughts while walking, this does not mean that the meditation itself is necessarily counterproductive.

Everyone is different, and so, we each need to evaluate for ourselves what may or may not work. However, it may not be necessary to give up meditation entirely, especially since its long-term benefits cannot be overstated.

Spiritual practices can certainly be a pillar, even the primary pillar in healing from depression. However, whether our specific set of practices is meditation-heavy, meditation-light or meditation-free, is something best determined for ourselves.

There are many activities and practices which can help alleviate depression. In terms of daily spiritual practices, we may want to consider:

  • Sacred devotional chanting (for instance of mantras, known as kirtan, though sacred chanting and singing is part of every spiritual tradition) especially with a group of like-spirited people, can be a powerfully uplifting and heart-opening practice. Even if alone, chanting along with a kirtan (yogic chant) cd or mp3 can help to open and uplift our hearts, in a variety of ways.
  • Mindfulness and Presence, allowing ourselves to be truly present, relaxed and aware in our bodies and breathing, can be beneficial as well; this practice helps us to rest in this moment, rather than think about other moments.
  • Connecting with people in any positive way, especially in a spiritual or otherwise loving context, is always helpful.
  • Opening in Gratitude is another powerful practice. A few minutes, even two or three minutes, each morning and evening, upon first arising, and as we are falling asleep, focusing only on the things for which we are truly grateful: God, our spiritual path, family, love, health, music, life itself, whatever it may be, can be a wonderful anti-depressant. The key is to really let ourselves feel the depth of our gratitude; to let emotions come up, if they do (as opposed to just quickly reciting a mental list). As with all spiritual practices, it has an aggregate benefit over time.
  • Spiritual Study, reading sacred, inspiring uplifting texts from any tradition can help uplift our minds and spirits.
  • Acceptance is one of the most powerful practices of all, and at essence, simply involves acknowledging reality, and letting our minds flow in natural harmony with reality, as it is. All this simple practice involves is noticing that this moment is the only actual moment, and that no memory of the past nor imagination about the future is actually part of this moment. We simply release, and let this moment be as it is. Actual moments are almost always fine. It is almost always our vast amounts of evaluation related to memory and imagination, which exacerbate depression.
  • Any Joy-Inducing Activity, ranging from uplifting music, books and movies, to making and meeting with new friends, or like-spirited groups of people; engaging in creative activities, or even purely fun activities, is a great way to help alleviate depression, even significant depression.

One of the most wonderful advancements in neuroscience in recent times is the reality of lifelong neuroplasticity in the brain, and the hope that this discovery can offer for any of us who may be dealing with depression on any level. Neuroplasticity simply means: our brains can be changed and reprogrammed, just as our muscles and physiology can be changed with exercise.

Books such as Spark and The Brain That Changes Itself (both available in the Living Unbound Store) highlight the fact that neuro-plasticity and bio-plasticity are real for us all; changing activities changes brain chemistry and physiology.

Spiritual practices and spiritual awakening are filled with countless examples of those who were deeply depressed, and arose out of their depression to live happy and lives, and serve the world around them in beautiful ways.

  • Eckhart Tolle (author of the Power of Now, and other books) was essentially suicidal, prior to his spiritual awakening, and is now a world-respected spiritual teacher.
  • Byron Katie (author of Loving What Is, and other books) awakened spiritually while living in a halfway-house, isolated from the other residents, due to her abrasive behavior at the time.
  • Greg Baer (author of Real Love, and other books) almost took his own life with a shotgun, prior to awakening spiritually, and contributing the Real Love series of books and teachings to the world.
  • Krishna Das was deeply depressed and dealt with addiction issues, prior to spiritually awakening and blessing the world with his awesome “Mantra Meets Rock N Roll” kirtans and albums.

… and these are just a few of many examples. Spiritual practices work, and they do lead to Living Unbound for every one of us who practices consistently and doesn’t stop.

And, again, it us up to each of us to decide if we are ready for a given type of practice, or amount of practice. One size does not fit all. However, we can all find a combination of uplifting activities and spiritual practices which can help us to experience ever-greater degrees of freedom from depression, and which can ultimately result in Living Unbound, in reality.

The truth of this has been understood for a very long time; in closing, here is a quote from a well-known yogic text, from 9th Century India:

“Just as a thief carries away the valuables of a home, so depression saps away the vitality of the body. This depression proceeds from ignorance.* If that ignorance disappears by unmesa, how can t hat depression last, in the absence of its cause?” ~Yoga Spandakarika, III.8

*The term “Ignorance” isn’t meant as it is used in modern times; in modern usage, the term “unawareness” might be used, instead. This sutra is simply saying that depression can only stay in place when we don’t experience the part of ourselves which can never be depressed: the inner silence, described above. Also, “Unmesa” is a Sanskrit term meaning “beyond thinking mind”, another way of referring to our inner silence.

Related Living Unbound Lessons and Resources:

3 thoughts on “Living Unbound Q&A: Meditation and Depression

  1. I appreciate the intent of this article. I do feel like it is slightly dismissive of the depressive experience in some ways. The fact that a situation isn’t actually bad, doesn’t matter if the person still feels bad. The fact that a few random people experienced grace and got out of their depression in a moment isn’t very helpful–it’s not repeatable, or it would be happening more.

    “If we decide with our doctor to start anti-depressant medication, there is often an initial period where the medication may seem to be working very well.” If it feels like it is working well, it is! That’s what depression is–how you feel. I agree 100% that then we must take advantage of the improved state to do spiritual practices or we will just relapse, so I am thinking specifically of the period when one is not yet taking medication (or just starting to, since they take so long to start working) but spiritual practices are not helping. This is a critical period, and it can be dangerous to anything that makes someone feel even little bad temporarily (even a spiritual practice that is beneficial in the long-term), to avoid possible suicidal behavior.

    I guess I feel like this discussion is from the perspective of someone feeling pretty okay, and more bent on clinging to a specific idea (“spiritual practices are always the answer”), than honestly seeing what works for a very irrational, depressed person.

    There are some ideas here I’d like to hear more on (and maybe other ideas here will resonate for others):
    -shortened meditation, just enough to get a person closer to the gap, without too much inwardness
    -chanting/positive music
    -connecting with people
    -enjoyable activities

    I really appreciate this website. Maybe other people’s experiences with depression are totally different. I just feel that the solutions have to be more context-specific than what is here.

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