How One Meditation Changed My Life
This picture was taken in Ibiza in August 2015. I was incredibly depressed, hating Ibiza and the craziness of life there, very lonely as I wasn’t really connecting with people, and those that I did were all busy working anyways. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that being in Ibiza wasn’t it.
But when this picture was taken I was sitting alongside one of my best friends, who has helped me in so many ways, watching this beautiful sunset and drinking a cold beer. I still felt awful with the depression and loneliness, but I was also able to acknowledge the really lovely things in that exact moment. I went home feeling slightly better that evening.
Perhaps this moment was trying to teach me something?
As many of you will know, I suffer from depression and have done pretty much all of my life. I can remember the anger, misery and profound sadness at age 5; it hadn’t changed much by age 35 either.
It was then that I started to understand that maybe, just maybe, it didn’t have to be this way. I knew that depressive episodes wouldn’t go away for good, but perhaps they could be less frequent, less debilitating, and that I could manage them better.
Five years of different types of therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, eating properly, drinking much less alcohol and living my life the way I want to live it has made a difference. These things keep my mood stable and the depressive episodes are much less frequent. But when they were coming, they were still overwhelming. Not quite so frightening as in the past when I seriously considered hospitalising myself, but still bad enough to cause me to walk out of work leaving my team in the lurch, or to spend much of my time in Ibiza lonely and in tears – even on the beach, in the sunshine.
In the early spring I signed up to do my Mindfulness teacher training with the Mindful Academy in Spain and received several meditations to practice at home. There was one called Four Steps to Awareness, which takes you on a journey of sitting with neutral, unpleasant and pleasant experiences as they are now: thoughts, feelings, sensations.
I can say now that it was this meditation that helped me manage my depression. It hasn’t made the depression go away. I still get the episodes. Winter is particularly difficult. Being self-employed, whilst liberating, is also sometimes very hard – and lonely. But I am now much, much better at allowing these episodes to be here, and in letting them pass.
Turn towards the pain
In the meditation, the practice is of sitting with whatever unpleasant experiences are present at that moment. Our natural, in built, reaction to anything painful is to avoid it, push it away, find something to make it better. But at the heart of mindfulness is the practice of turning towards that which hurts us, softening towards it, letting it be there. Rather counter intuitively, when we do this, the pain is more likely to lessen, even to go away.
Turning towards pain takes practice. In terms of my depression, my initial reaction when I noticed I was in an episode, was to make it go away. There are many ways to be avoidant: being busy, exercising, keeping the mind occupied with books and TV. Even positive affirmations are avoiding what is really going on.
These tricks only work for a bit. The pain, whatever it is, is still there. So I learned to notice I was depressed and not to avoid it. Just notice the sadness, the tiredness, the overwhelmed-ness, the anxiety. Admit to myself that this is where I was. And then set about seeing how best I could look after myself in this situation.
When I sit with unpleasant feelings I put my hands on my heart area and just breathe there – or breath into the pain in my tummy. Sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes just for a couple of breaths. When I have unpleasant thoughts, I don’t push them away or block them out with happy thoguhts. I acknowledge their presence, and then allow them to pass. They always pass. They might come back, but they do pass.
Get better at noticing the good
The second step in the meditation is asking us to bring our attention towards the pleasant. Not to make up pleasant thoughts, or ‘think happy’ or imagine anything. But just notice the good things that are there right now. Even when unpleasant experiences are happening, it is possible to notice the things that bring us joy. Many of these are really small and it takes awareness to really notice them.
In May I had a bad depressive episode. I went for a walk in the park and just breathed into the awful feelings as I walked. I still felt horrendous, but I deliberately took my attention to the pleasant things I was experiencing on my walk: the warmth of the sun, the fresh air; my body moving; the sounds of children having fun; the many shades of green of the trees and grass and plants. The whole time I had that chest constriction, the lead ball in my stomach, the overwhelming sadness – but I was still able to notice the good things of my present experience. And these were real, they were there. They were not made up in my head.
As I got better at this practice, I noticed that letting in the good would lessen the awful feelings of my depression. Not so much make it go away, just lessen the impact. Make it more bearable. As I practiced overtime, the depressive episode would start to lift much earlier than it had in the past.
Build a bigger container
Mindfulness is all about being aware of the totality of our experience in any given moment. With that awareness of the pleasant, unpleasant, neutral comes the practice of allowing these things to be there, to sit with them. In order to do this, we have to create a bigger container to hold them.
That container is within us: in our hearts, minds, bodies and soul. As we practice, these elements expand so that we are better able to hold uncomfortable sensations, thoughts and feelings without wanting to push them away. And at the same time, we still have room to let in the good stuff. I know that when I’m depressed, I don’t want to eat properly, or socialise and I push people away. The depression makes me think I don’t deserve the good things. What I’ve learned is to create space for people and experiences that do feel good, and to fit them into my life. A bigger container makes life seem fuller.
Understand that everything changes
Many meditations use the breath as an anchor, to ground and centre you as you practice. When you watch the breath for a period of time, you start to deeply understand that everything changes. No one breath is the same. When one breath is finished, a completely new one in a different moment starts. It’s like magic.
When we pay attention to our experiences, in all their colours, we notice that these too change. For many years, when I was in a depressive episode I would never believe it would end. It would end, of course, although the timing was always a surprise. I would also spend a lot of my time when I wasn’t depressed waiting for the next episode to arrive, sometimes in a state of anxious expectation. There was then a period of about two years where I didn’t have an episode and I honestly thought I had ‘beaten’ depression. When I got hit by depression again I was stunned and disbelieving. I disbelieved it so much, I didn’t take care of myself and the situation got much worse.
This meditation helped me understand that experiences change, both pleasant and unpleasant situations don’t last. We try to push away the unpleasant and cling to the enjoyable. Both the aversion and the clinging are really what cause us to suffer, not the actual experience underneath. I also learned that these changes can be very subtle; paying attention to the nuances of my depression helped me realise that I don’t feel awful, all the time. My mood can shift, and then shift back.
Listen to the message
I think that pretty much everyone has a tendency to depression. We have an in built negativity bias that drives us to seek out the worst rather than notice what really is going on. Our negative thought cycles can spiral out of control. Our fast paced, reward seeking, stressful world leaves our stress response constantly switched on. We’re exhausted and worried and self-medicate with alcohol, shopping and more work. Depression thrives in these conditions.
But these negative experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations are there for a reason. They are often trying to tell us something. If you have back ache, and there is nothing on the MRI scan, then maybe it’s chronic muscular tension in your back telling you that a life of 10 hours a day at a desk, commuting, stress, poor diet, and lack of suitable exercise isn’t right for you.
When you experience depressive episode after episode, maybe it’s life trying to get your attention. For years, I turned away from the depression, and away from the messages. When I finally paid attention about 5 years ago, I realised the message was that the life I was leading wasn’t right for me. I made changes, I felt better.