Treating Depression with Meditation

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Depression has plagued me most of my life and only recently did I realize that I did it to myself. 

There were times as a kid when I would get upset and I would indulge in that suffering, exacerbating it like picking at a scab. If someone at school had laughed at me or made fun of me, if my parents or family treated me in a way that hurt my feelings, I would lie awake at night and punish myself. In my head, I would think to myself: “They’re right, you are ugly. You are a failure. You’re not good enough.” In my mind, I would repeat all of the things I hated about myself, indulging endlessly about how stupid, or how weak, or how unworthy I was. 

I did not understand that my thoughts were literally carving a neural pathway in my head. I didn’t understand that the more I indulged in those self-destructive thoughts, the harder it would be to perceive a reality without those inherent assumptions of my ugliness, of my unworthiness.  

Thoughts are not abstract, immaterial things. Thoughts are very real substances. When you have a thought, your brain creates a neural pathway for that thought. So if you imagine an elephant right now, your brain is creating a neural pathway for that visualization. But you’ve probably thought about elephants before, so it’s simply reinforcing that preexisting neural pathway you created way back when you first learned about elephants. 

Similarly, when something bad happens to you, and you think to yourself, “Life sucks,” or you think, “I’m ugly,” your brain doesn’t discriminate and makes a neural pathway for that thought. The next time something bad happens, you may also again think, “Life sucks.” So what does your brain do then? It already has a network for that thought, so it reinforces it with a new neural connection, thereby strengthening that negative attitude. Eventually, what happens over time is that you strengthen this negative neural pathway while the positive neural pathway—the attitude that you are beautiful or that life is amazing—atrophies over time. Now, you have depression. Your brain is literally designed and programmed—by your previous thought patterns—to perceive reality with a negative filter. 

Self-destructive thoughts create a negative feedback loop that physically carves that perspective into your gray matter, practically etched in stone. Think of the rain eroding a mountainside, carving a valley out of the dirt. The deeper that valley is eroded by the rain, the likelier the chance of any future rainfall to travel the same path and cut the valley even deeper, exponentially creating a feedback loop. Your thoughts are the rain, your brain is the mountain. It’s up to you where you want to the rain to go, but it might be a herculean task to reverse the erosion when you’ve indulged in self-destructive thinking for as long as I did. 

But it is possible. 

In cognitive behavioral therapy, they teach patients to redirect these thoughts from negativity toward positivity. So in the simplest terms, this means remembering that each time you think, “I’m ugly,” you need to catch that thought, reverse it and remind yourself of your own beauty. The more you do this, gradually you will weaken the bad attitude and strengthen the positive perspective, slowly curing your depression. 

Meditation offers another route. 

In practicing meditation, we do not discriminate between the positive or the negative thoughts. Instead, we detach from both by becoming non-reactive. As we sit in quiet meditation, we try to focus our attention on a specific object—usually the breath. Naturally, distractions arise, pulling our attention away from the object. 

These distractions can fall into one of three categories: physical, emotional or mental. 

As you’re sitting there, physical sensations from your body will distract you. Your body will crave motion, it will want to get up and move, or you might hear noises and sounds that pull your attention away from the breath. Meditating means simply observing these physical sensations without reacting to them. So if there’s an itch on your nose, don’t react by scratching it. Instead, simply observe the itch relentlessly. Eventually, you’ll find that either the itch disappears, or that you are simply no longer bothered by the itchiness. When that happens, you’ll inevitably realize that you are not your body and you needn’t be a slave to its cravings, constantly reacting to the sensations it produces. 

As your practice deepens and you’ve overcome your body’s resistance, you may be distracted by emotional sensations: feelings. Anger or frustration or sadness may rise up in you unexpectedly. What to do? 

Again, your task in meditation is simply to observe without reaction. So observe the emotion relentlessly without reacting to its demands. The emotion may be screaming at you like a crying child, but you must patiently observe it without reacting to its demands. Eventually, you will realize that you are not your emotions. You are not angry, you are feeling anger. You are not frustrated, you are feeling frustration. In this manner, you can slowly practice not reacting to any emotion that may suddenly pop up, either during meditation or not. 

Finally, the biggest distractions you will face will be mental. Your thoughts will race and your mind will keep chattering, constantly pulling you away from focusing on your breath. Again, your task is simply to observe the thoughts without reacting. The moment you observe that thinking is happening without your intention, then simply redirect your attention back to the breath, having congratulated yourself for noticing the thinking. Again, your thoughts will stir up, your attention will wander. But again, as soon as you recognize it, congratulate yourself and bring your attention back to the breath without reacting to the thought. 

When you practice not reacting to physical, emotional or mental sensations, you will inevitably experience the realization that you are not your body, your feelings or your thoughts. You are the observer in charge of these processes, not slave to them. Your body’s cravings and desires will then be subordinate to you. Your emotions will no longer have the power to derail your entire day’s mood. Your thoughts will not torment you or even arise without your direction. 

Meditation is the practice of not reacting. In practicing not reacting, you will naturally weaken the power of any neural pathway you may have created. You will slowly build a new neural structure that is patient, centered and unlikely to react to any sensations, be they physical, emotional or mental. 

As you practice not reacting to these sensations, you’ll find it easier to avoid reacting to events in your daily life. Someone may cut you off or fire you or dump you. You needn’t react to the anger or sadness that arises, to the self-destructive thoughts that spring up. You will have the patience to deal with these sensations on your own terms, rather than reacting unconsciously and taking everything personally.  

While cognitive behavioral therapy is a great tool, and necessary for some people to reprogram their neural patterning, meditation can help one transcend the neural patterning altogether, achieving a state of centeredness that is not dependent on any external factors. While many traditions describe this state as being detached, it’s actually the only way to be fully present in a given situation. Most of us fail to be present in any moment because we are caught in our physical, emotional and mental sensations of the events which are all interpreted through our biased neural patterning. By practicing non-reaction and detaching from identification with your physical, emotional or mental sensations, you can perceive reality as it is, without your body, heart and mind’s prejudices. 

For many of us, depression is not really a condition that can ever be cured.

There’s always the risk that we may backslide into our old tendencies to indulge in self-destructive thinking, or encourage negative emotions, or engage in addictive self-destructive behaviors through food, drugs, or sex. So that tendency must always be kept in check through relentless self-observation of our own physical, emotional and mental sensations. By relentlessly observing these sensations while choosing not to react to them, we can regain control of our attention so that it is not constantly pulled in every which way by our desires, be they physical, emotional or mental. 

The only cure for depression is staying in the present moment without reacting to it unconsciously.

It is only in our unconscious reactions that depression can take hold. But when we are fully present, unmoored by any physical sensations, feelings or thoughts, our attention is like a light that shines on the darkness of depression. It simply cannot exist there when our attention is undivided. 

By recognizing that your negative thinking is creating a neural mechanism in your brain to increase the tendency of more negative thinking, you can halt the process and reverse it. While a negative feedback loop makes destruction seem inevitable, it only takes a little bit of pushing in the opposite direction to generate a positive feedback loop. 

Happiness is simply dedicating yourself to constantly reinforcing the positive feedback loop—the attitude that recognizes life’s beauty and your own worthiness. Happy people achieve this state by practicing it constantly. Just as you or I might indulge in punishing ourselves with self-hating thoughts, happy people indulge in gratitude for whatever good is present, and thereby create a tendency in their brain’s neural pathways to discover even more good.  

In the end, the reality you live in is a product of your thinking patterns. If you genuinely believe that the world is a meaningless place or that you are ugly and unworthy, then your brain will continue to recognize meaninglessness and ugliness and unworthiness no matter how great your life may actually be. And vice versa, the more you recognize the miraculous nature of existence, the more the pattern of miracles will display itself to you. 

You may think that the reality you perceive is fixed, but it is completely a product of your perception of it. Change your perception, and you change your reality.  

Relentless observation of the senses reveals that you are not your body, you are not your feelings, you are not your thoughts. You are the observer. You have a body. You have feelings. You have thoughts. These are all tools at your disposal. But most likely, you have gone through life being a tool to your body, your feelings, your mind. 

Take control today, right now, by choosing to no longer indulge in these negative patterns and establish new patterns. It will be hard—like trying to stop the erosion of a mountain. But bit by bit, you can build up a dam and redirect the flow of thoughts to carve a neural pathway that creates a happy perception, rather than a miserable one. 

Ultimately, your happiness is in your own hands.

You are responsible for your condition. You have created your depression and misery yourself. You may have started at such a young age, that your patterning is so deep as to be invisible to you. That’s what happened to me. But no matter how deep the pattern goes, the solution is the same: relentlessly observe the pattern and redirect your attention where you want it to be. Eventually, your neural pathways, your brain, and therefore your perceptions generated by the brain, will transform. 

Joy is available to you at this very moment, if you choose to accept it.

Any past wounds or future worries that are telling you to be unhappy now are simply stories playing in your head, thought patterns your mind is indulging in. Take control, change the story, and let those wounds and worries go. If you don’t start practicing happiness now, you have no one to blame for your misery but yourself. 

You can do it. You deserve to be happy.