Meditation and Depression
Sometimes people want to use meditation to go into the places in themselves that they haven't been able to face – those dark caves, creeping dark feelings, horrible black clouds, sinking sensations in the pit of the stomach. This is an interesting match of symptom and technique because there are thousands of meditative techniques that recommend you actively invoke darkness and emptiness. If you already have an inner sensation of darkness, then meditation amounts to giving in to it, accepting what you already are experiencing and not resisting it.
I have worked with many people who were experiencing symptoms of what is called "depression," since 1970, because they come to see if meditation will work. There is nothing like waking up at 3 a.m. to motivate a person. Usually they have tried therapy and drugs with limited success, and following a hunch or a healing professional's recommendation, they check out meditation as a kind of "medication" to alter their brain chemistry. The short answer is that sometimes meditation does not help and sometimes it does, and no one knows why.
Depressives can be easy to work with from the point of view of meditation, because they already feel like sitting in a dark room and doing nothing. That's their symptom. When they walk into my place and sit down, I give them permission to just give in to what is already happening. What is mind-blowing, what changes everything, is the act of accepting, a total, 100% acceptance, even if just for a few minutes. Acceptance is a decision to not hide, not flinch, not put up a wall of mental noise to try to protect yourself from the inner darkness, emptiness and silence. When we accept, the brain can relax and stop trying to defend against the blackness, and turn toward metabolizing it as a source of life. Then it becomes an elixir. When people do this, there is a physical transformation as well that must have a profound biochemical and neurological correlate. I would love to see fMRI movies of meditator's brains as they accepted infinity.
From a clinical standpoint, the technical challenge is that sometimes I need to just sit in the darkness with a student for ninety minutes or two hours, without interruption, without imposing anything, and without having any restless urges myself. In this world, no one gives that kind of time and attention, but it's what is called for. People can sense if your mind wanders. I have spent hundreds of afternoons of my life sitting with people as they entered the wide open infinities of blackness within. In fact, you really can't have any time limit at all – you have to be willing to just stay there forever with the person. Foreverness, eternity is part of the symptomology and it needs to be matched and accepted as well. It's only when the eternalness of hell is accepted that it turns to heaven.
Pathology into Divinity
Historically, probably most if not all of the great meditators have been depressed people seeking healing. You don't abandon your family, walk up into the mountains and sit in a cave because you are happy. Your inner blackness is calling you to face it, and when you answer that call but don't commit suicide, it's meditation.
Buddha is just one example out of millions. His mother died a few days after giving birth to him, according to his scriptural biography. She seems to have gotten an infection – childbirth fever, they used to call it – and lingered, suffering, for a week and then died. So his first experience out of the womb would have been suckling at the breast of a dying woman – feverish, groaning in pain. A clear message, "You killed your mother. Just by being born, you killed her."
Then his father ordered everyone to act cheerful, and nurses raised the child. He grew up in an atmosphere of forced happiness and denial. It's no surprise that when his first son was born, Buddha abandoned his family and walked into the wilderness to starve himself.
The genius of India, Tibet and other cultures is that they take what we in the West call "mental illness" and make a spiritual calling out of it, and give people permission to really go for broke. If you feel like life is worthless and not worth living, why not go sit on a mountain and meditate? Why not go into a cave, or wander naked in the forest, until you feel better? Some of the people who did this had incredible enlightenment experiences and came back down from the mountain or out of the caves raving about how great it was. There is no record of all the innumerable people that died in the process without finding healing. In the East, this is a trifle, not even worth recording. Let them eat darkness. But if you do survive, if you do face every last molecule of the death instinct in yourself and come back, we will feed you and honor you as a saint, someone who has died and come back to chat about the world beyond. India as Oprah.
The problem of India and Tibet and other cultures that have nurtured meditation is that they went a bit overboard in adopting the point of view of these depressives as THE TRUTH. In the process of giving honor to the fanatics, to the die-hard depressives, the path of meditation for normal people was lost. They embraced pathology so totally, and sanctified it, that they came to believe that pathology IS the path. Probably what happened is that when the surviving depressives came down off the mountain raving about how everyone should abandon their family and go live on rutabagas in a cave, the normal people said, "Yeah, whatever, listen, why don't you write a book about it and leave us pathetic householders to schlep through our daily lives?"
I have come to believe that pathology is A path, not THE path. These generic notions blur the truth. The path, it seems to me, emerges from within our everyday experience, the exact nature of the sensations, images, voices calling us. This is quite particular to each person. So much so that I actually do not categorize people with the meditation teacher's version of the DSM IV. There would have to be thousands of categories to describe what I see in people who walk through my door – perhaps one category for each person. An insurance bureaucracy would never tolerate hearing about individual uniqueness.
When meditation does work, it seems to me, it is always from embracing your exact experience. Your experience is not generic "blackness" or "sinking feelings." There are no generic people. The action, the magic is in noticing and accepting your exact, individual, unique, ever-changing, never-the-same-from-moment-to-moment experience of sinking, darkness, willingness to die, and attraction to death. Each person's door out is in a different location with a different lock. The key is the exact one you already have in your hand, you just need to realize you have a hand and use it. The more you track the split-second fluctuations in these experiences, the more they surprise you by changing into something entirely different – the depression is in the resistance to experience more than in the darkness itself. Meditation can be a superb way of giving permission for individuality and intensity, and willingness to change. If you take the feeling of wanting to die, wanting to not exist, and meditate with it, almost always it turns into something else – a transformation. What dies is not your body, which is innocent and a marvel, but your ideas about who you are and your story of who you are. You get a fresh start.
In other words, you can look at meditation as being all about taking the sensations and imagery of depression and savoring them – you get relaxed and then say, "Hey – bring it on." Simply turning and facing such an experience and welcoming the inky black infinity changes the context and pulls the rug out from under your symptoms.
Bernie & The Blackness
Facing the blackness can feel overwhelming until you have the tools of attention to deal with it. At times, it is really useful to have someone with you, holding the ground, as you learn to let go of your defenses against yourself.
When I work with people, the conversations can be on the phone, by email, as well as in person, and often all three. People in Southern California come by and we take walks along the ocean and talk, and sit on the sand and meditate, or come back to the house and sit on on the sofas in the living room. Some people travel into Los Angeles every few months to have a session and in-between, we do phone sessions with email follow-up.
I recently (2002 to 2004) coached Bernard, who was 32 when he started working with me. Bernard said he had been chronically depressed for much of his life, and had been smoking marijuana daily since he was 14. His therapist referred him to me, based on an intuition that my kind of work would help him. He had many years of therapy before we met. We worked together for several years, during which time he was also seeing a therapist.
During the first few minutes of our first session, I noticed he was tapping his foot. One would be tempted to say "tapping his foot nervously," and that would be accurate. I find it is so much more useful, almost always, to just inquire into what is going on and blend with it gently. Sometimes you can just ask a person directly, and sometimes you need to join them for a bit. I sensed that if I asked him directly, or meta-commented ("I see you are tapping your foot") it would be a put-down and make him feel uncomfortable. So I was careful to not stare at his foot, just notice the overall rhythm of his body, to see what it was telling me.
On the verbal level, he was telling me about his studies in graduate school and where he was going with his career and the obstacles he was encountering. This went on for about half an hour. After awhile, I started to tap my hand a little, exploring what kind of a beat he was telling me about on the muscular level as he spoke about how demanding his studies were. It was almost a rock 'n roll rhythm, the kind of song that is about yearning and love and lust and longing.
So I tapped my hand on my leg a bit and said, something like,
"Oooooh baby, all I do
is study all the time,
study all the time,
and I don't get no lovin,' no lovin' at all,
and ever' time I look at those books,
I think of you."
He laughed and said, "That's it exactly! That is the way I feel. I am longing for the life I don't have. I have no life. I just study study."
Then he looked down at the floor and said quietly, "I think I am grieving for the life I think I'll never have, one full of friends and family and music and great conversations."
I knew he'd had lots of therapy, meaning, he had probably spent much time with people giving him meaningful, compassionate looks when he said such things. So I jumped up and said, "I know you'll think I am crazy, but I have a sudden intense craving to hear some music. I've got 5000 songs in iTunes, what do you want to hear? What music do you have running around in your head?"
He suggested a Brazilian love song, which I happened to have, and played. We both sat and gave over to the beauty of the song, which in its melodic structure, in the lyrics, the mastery of the musicians, said, it is wonderful to be in longing, to have passion, to be open to the hurt and perplexity of being in love. Flowers bloom, hearts ache. The amazing thing about a popular song is that it's about three minutes. You enter a realm of the heart, feel it, and exit in three minutes. A couple of minutes later he thought of another song, which I found in a couple of seconds on iTunes and bought for 99 cents, downloaded in a few seconds and played. In this way, we sat for fifteen minutes or so, totally immersed in the music Bernie had going through his head, the stuff he really wanted to hear. While listening to the music, Bernard was transformed. His passion was flowing through his body, he was breathing, his skin gained color, he was in motion. After the music ended, I gently suggested or invited him to notice his bodily sensations, and breathe in a way that caressed the aching heart.
Without saying, "We are meditating now," I invited him to attend with meditative awareness to the quiet flow of passion and love of life that was flowing through his body. We sat in the silence for a few minutes, eyes closed, then eyes open, then eyes closed again. He knew I was a meditation teacher, so there was a context there. There were a lot of instructions I was not giving or explaining – I just implied by my presence that it was OK to just be quiet and savor the after-effects of hearing a great song. We did this again and again in each session, just letting him get used to undefended alertness, paying attention to silence without flinching.
Over the months, he was able to meditate for longer and longer periods, up to twenty minutes sometimes. The reason for going so gradually is to avoid having his meditation be taken over by his self-hatred. Bernard had loud, aggressive, impossible-to-ignore inner voices berating him and devaluing him. If we meditated even a minute too long, he would shift from learning to associate meditation with the beauty of music, to associating it with self-degradation.
Technically speaking, he did not have enough of a witness developed within himself in the meditative state to listen to the hateful inner voices without flinching. I did not want him to develop the habit of flinching and then associating all that inner warfare with meditation. His usual pattern would have been to hear the inner voices screaming at him, feel annihilated, then try to fight back, then give up, feel depressed, then go smoke pot. He'd been caught in that cycle for a long, long time.
After several months of this, and building up a sense of pleasure, that meditation was letting yourself be in love with the rhythm of life, we started tackling The Inner Darkness, which is what he would fall into if he just sat quietly by himself. It was as if he were in a pit of blackness with nothing but scolding, debasing voices.
By the way if you haven't already encountered the thought that meditation is "the process of attending to the rhythm of life renewing itself," you may want to do that now. It's the essence of Instinctive Meditation. Think about the classic meditation techniques – focusing on breathing, on the heartbeat, on the flow of sensations in the body, or the rhythm of a mantra as it comes and goes. What are we doing here? Attending to the rhythm of life. And what is life doing? Life is always refreshing itself through rhythm, repairing the damage done in the process of living, encouraging us to get up and go out and do it again, evolving and adapting. Meditation is a way of cooperating on a deep level with the dance of life. This is my basic, working definition of meditation.
Now, back to Bernard and the Inner Darkness. After several months of music and brief meditations, one day we went long enough that his inner blackness took over. He was sitting there with his eyes closed, and then he opened them and said, "It's as if the inside of my brain is a coal mine. All I feel is darkness."
I said, "Well, I have an inner darkness too, I've been dragged there unwillingly, and at other times I've gone there voluntarily, and I've found it's an interesting sound studio. Man' it's quiet there. It's the one place that is totally isolated acoustically. All sound, all voices, are really intense there, not just negative ones. If I go there without being open to feeling, my brain tries to distract me from the silence by thinking loud thoughts. But if I am willing to just feel my loneliness, and almost cry, then the thoughts stop and I am just immersed in blackness and silence. I get so lonely, I could die. (I said this softly, with no hint of Elvis.) It's not that bad, and after a few minutes, when I hear music, it saves my life. It prepares me to totally merge with the music."
Then I just went silent and stared out the window, and left him alone to process that. It took all I had to be able to say that to him right then, in that way, so I shut up and let him think about that.
Then we did a lot of technical meditation stuff, of listening to the exact chord structures he craved to hear, and noticing where in the body they vibrate, and what kind of inner experience the music is calling the listener into. Then we drew upon the world's meditation traditions to construct a kind of meditation that was classical – one of the ancient forms – and at the same time custom-designed for Bernard, a perfect fit for what his love of music was calling him into. We mapped the state of loving music over into making meditation like listening to life.
For the next several months, we came and went from the inner darkness, having him enter and exit it at will, to break up his lifelong pattern of being overwhelmed by the darkness, then desperately struggling to escape from it. We would come and go, tiptoeing up to the darkness, then ignoring it, then jumping in deliberately, then ignoring it for awhile, all to break up the years and years of patterns he had built up to try to wall himself off from this overwhelming inner blackness.
I was waiting for the right moment to invite him to just jump in to the pool of blackness he was afraid of. I have found that with some depressed people – I have no idea what percentage of all depressions this is, or even "What percentage of depressed people find their way to a meditation teacher who will invite them to experience their symptom as a calling." I apologize if you can't decode that sentence. It's a whole essay unto itself, symptoms as calling, or trance, or shamanistic experience. I have found that some depressed people are called into a Void experience. They actually have in their range of sensing an immense blackness, like yogis seek. The problem is they are afraid of it. When they actually open up to experience the blackness, it sometimes changes into something else totally – light, delight, bliss, freedom, space.
Then one day it seemed safe to just stay there in this perplexing state of blackness. I would go in with him, and be in my own blackness, which I know very well.
Because he smoked marijuana and wanted to quit, I said at one point, "Well, you know, the tar in marijuana is almost black. If you look at a pipe you can see it. That black tar is something the body metabolizes into chemicals that mimic your brain's own neurotransmitters. The blackness you feel inside yourself is a coal mine of tar, and you can metabolize it one molecule at a time and give yourself your own mood chemicals. Your body can learn to manufacture the balancing chemicals it needs." We had just been meditating, and listening to music, and he was as they say, hanging on every word. There was tremendous rapport between us from matching rhythms for months. We had gone in and out of silent meditation then listening to music so much that we could sit in the silence between words and the silence seemed rhythmic, like the pause between notes of a song.
So I paused and let the silence just vibrate there for awhile. And then I said, very casually and rhythmically, "You know . . . at the intersection of the neurons . . . at the synapses . . . it's almost single molecules of the right chemicals, vibrating, and letting the nerves dance with the joy of life . . . your body can easily manufacture those . . . probably already does . . . it's just a matter of allowing them in to the space between the synapses . . . probably the slightest turning of a dial (gesturing as if to turn up the volume on a stereo) . . . maybe you can take a breath and just give permission to your nervous system to adjust its chemicals, play around with the levels, find the volume and intensity that works for the you that you are now . . ."
Then, because I knew that he had just imprinted on the metaphor I had constructed, I changed the subject, and started talking about my own suffering and delight in loving and being loved.
The language above speaks for itself – anyone who loves music, especially love songs, and marijuana, will get it. If you want to study the techniques I used in constructing the language and the metaphors, and also knowing how to match the rhythm of my speech to the rhythm of his heartbeat and breathing, there is a wealth of truly great literature linking human experience, brain chemistry, hypnosis, the placebo effect, the physiology of meditation, the structure of music, the way poetry speaks to the body directly.
We met once a week for several months, using music as the context of our discussions, and gradually closing our eyes for longer and longer periods of time.
Then I took his intense love of music and helped him transfer some of it to meditation. Meditation as a way of increasing your ability to enjoy your favorite music. And music as a way of entering spontaneous meditative states.
And what did music did he love most of all? Brazilian love songs. When he would come for sessions, I would play his favorite music for awhile, and we would just sit together and listen. Then when the song ended, we would sit in the silence afterwards for awhile, stunned by the beauty of what we just heard. In this way, I was suggesting to him that the space in and after his favorite songs is a meditative state.
When we are loving and being loved, the body produces its own amazing, custom-designed drugs. These are probably only a millionth the strength of a dose of LSD, but they are yours, and they come from your own endocrine system, and they don't deplete you they renew you and make you glad to be alive.
In this way Bernard gradually shifted from his dependency on various drugs to loving a wife and a baby. Over a couple of years, he met someone, developed a stable romance, started planning to get married, bought a house together, fixed it up, she got pregnant, one thing leading to another. He just stepped into his favorite song. His life became the music he loved. It's not like he gave anything up. He is just so busy loving and being loved and listening to music that he has no time to either feel depressed or take drugs. Now, I don't think you could tempt him to smoke the greatest marijuana – he would thank you for offering it, but he wouldn't want to miss an hour of the ecstasy of watching his 3-year-old daughter interact with the afternoon, singing, dancing, napping, and loving mommy and daddy. His real problem now is not a lack of ecstasy, it's a lack of sleep.
Let's do a little academic footnoting here. You can skip over this section if you want.
On one level, I was just talking from the heart about my experience. That's the basis of what made it work. I had listened to Bernard very carefully for some time, letting my body join his band – if he was the singer, I was the bass player and drummer, but it was his music and I was letting it evoke experiences in me, and then sharing that.
Over 90% of our conversation would sound to an observer like two graduate students shooting the breeze. We would talk about rock 'n roll, pot, women, Brazil, cognitive science, neuroscience, meditation, marijuana, drugs, music, anatomy, Jungian archetypes, dreams, poetry, the brain, cars, the sensuality of driving a BMW, how important good tires are and having a clean windshield, how amazing it is to be a man and look at the shape of a woman and feel your blood chemistry instantly change, progress in functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain at work, new developments in the research into the physiology of meditation, and models of the brain and the entire nervous system as an adaptive system.
We did this partly because in my work, I impose as little as possible of my structure on the person I am working with. These were all topics Bernard was highly interested in and was thinking about all the time. I think about them all the time also, so we could have a conversation, and while doing so I learned his interior language. I constructed a language for my work with Bernard out of his inner chatter, his interests, finding in that the parallels to meditation and thus tools he could learn to use that would enhance his life. If he were interested in something else entirely, sports or knitting or hunting, I would have used that as the language.
I usually walk people out to their cars after they have a session with me, to make sure they are are alert and oriented enough to drive safely. Sessions orient you very deeply with your inner world and I want them to be re-oriented back to the outer world before they get in the car. As I watched him drive away I learned that he loved to shift gears. He was driving a BMW and he made a beautiful shift from second to third as he got on the straight part of the road. So in the next session, I used a couple of metaphors about shifting – I implied that the brain could learn to shift levels, shift tones, shift the texture of its own chemistry, and this shifting could be intentional and fun, you can just grab your internal stick shift and touch the clutch with your foot and firmly but gently slam your transmission into another gear and accelerate. This worked – his body loved the metaphor, he looked almost sexually turned on when I said it, and then I never mentioned the metaphor directly again. Then I invited him to close his eyes and savor the feeling of breathing, appreciate air as the body's carburetor. This was another small victory, in creating meditation to be an active state of savoring life, a quiet rejoicing in rhythm, not an escape but a jump into life.
While chatting with Bernie, I was simultaneously formatting the conversation and the stories I told in several ways developed by Milton Erickson and written about by Connirae Andreas and others. There is a way of formatting your sentence structure, your metaphors, and your tone of voice to honor and respect the individual's cognitive structure. This is part of what my doctoral dissertation research was about. I spent eight years studying the rhythm and language of meditative experience and correlating it to what is known about the physiology of meditation and the dynamics of mind-body healing.
In the sessions, we mapped his love of music over into a love of meditation, and then a love of life itself. Then we bridged from there as a resource to get him to face his inner blackness, just take it, undefended. Then we started to jazz up the blackness and silence, the interior coal pit. We started using it as a resource to appreciate music. Then we started to think of it as a kind of weird drug, that you can take a molecule at a time, that does something like what marijuana does, in terms of silencing the mind and making you love music. All of this was preposterous, of course, and daring, but it matched his own interior language systems and it was a very close match to the way the meditation traditions think of the brain and of what speech is.
I used that as a way to help him shape himself to get ready to let a woman love him, which he did, and then just gently steered him toward tolerating the amazing sensation of being loved, and loving in return.
For a scholarly discussion of the theory behind the language patterns I was using, check out Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing: New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis by Ernest Rossi.
Rossi studied with Milton Erickson for many years, and an interesting book they did together is The February Man.
Erickson was a genius at language and pacing, and his story is fascinating. The first time I read Patterns, in the late 1970's, about a thousand light bulbs went off in my head, because I immediately realized how his discoveries could be used to teach meditation in a respectful way. One of his discoveries is that there are no resistant clients. People do not travel miles to see you, pay you a lot of money, and give you hours of their time to sit there and resist you. They present themselves, and it is up to you to perceive the unique way they are configured and are cooperating with you. Their body will talk to you through a little flick of a finger here, a gesture there, a change in breathing, a flush of the cheeks, an alteration in heart rate, a sigh, a spontaneous movement of the legs, changes in pupil dilation, and innumerable other way. All you have to do is listen and learn, watch and learn, feel and learn, and then format what you have to say in a way that honors and respects who they are.
Erickson's work was called "medical hypnosis," and this is another story, but it turns out that you can say "There is no such thing as hypnosis," or "everything is hypnosis." Say you are watching TV. At first you may just look AT the TV and not be interested. Then, you may find your attention captured by a news show, a sitcom, a history channel episode, or a movie. The moment you get involved in the show, what is the difference between that and hypnosis? You might say, "Sure, we know TV is hypnosis." But what about reading? You might look at a book and see it as little black marks on paper. Once you get into the process called "reading," and get involved, then you can lose track of time, and become completely involved in whatever you are reading. If it is fiction, you may even be there in the story, visualizing all the characters interacting. We are really talking about focus and concentration, and this is a voluntary process.
If there is such a thing as hypnosis, then reading a book is hypnosis, thinking a thought it hypnosis, watching TV is hypnosis, watching a play is hypnosis, watching a movie is hypnosis, sitting in a cafe reading the paper is hypnosis, writing a song is hypnosis, listening to music is hypnosis. There is nothing that is not hypnosis. Therefore the word means everything and maybe nothing. Nonetheless, the term "hypnosis" has been a very useful fantasy because it has led to very skilled use of language.
This is another separate discussion, but I need to mention here that you don't "Meditationize," someone. You invite them to meditate. And it is a fantasy to think that you "hypnotize" someone. You invite them to enter a state of focus. This is an important distinction because one of the ethical themes of my work with meditation, with Instinctive Meditation, is activating the instincts. It's an active, not a passive, process. With Bernard, I was not doing anything to him. I was inviting him to make connections between previously unconnected areas of his experience: his love of music, his loneliness, his fear of blackness and depression, his inner voices, his addiction to marijuana, and his longing to have a life, and his willingness to work hard to get out of his pit of despair. He came to me and presented all this as material and I honored all of it, one realm at a time, and allowed his body, his nervous system, his love itself to suggest a way out. Studying the genius or Erickson, along with my other training, helped me to perceive the instinctive brilliance at work in Bernard and cooperate with it.
Erickson's work, and the work of people who studied him, is in deep parallel to the teachings on meditation as I learned them from the vijnana bhairava tantra and Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation. TM is the most respectful of the meditation trainings I have seen – nothing else even comes close, in terms of not insulting the beginning student, not insulting the nature of the mind, and not insulting life. In TM, the mind is never wrong, and the body is never wrong. Life is not wrong. Your mind is not "wandering." Your body is not an opponent. Both are working together in perfect harmony, right from the start.
With Bernard, after listening to the music he was loving, I said and showed him, basically, that we can waltz right into the structure of the songs we love. We can start to live what the songs are about. I did not give much of a hint of "advice" to him.
If a traditional meditation teacher were listening to Bernard and I talking, he would not hear much that reminded him of meditation, except the few minutes in each session when I said, "Ok, let's close our eyes and listen to the rhythm of the breath flowing in and out, and sense underneath that the boom boom beat of the heart."