My question is about practice & how, when doing one’s ngondro for example, many difficult things can come up. Recently I remembered your description of being on retreat, and not being able to move because of depression (how something was expressing itself at the time). How possible is it to lead a daily life of work etc. and go though this process? When something difficult comes up (like depression), it is very difficult to cope with the everyday needs/activities of life. Any advice appreciated!
So many mornings when I wake I feel desolate. I’m surprised when I don’t! Yet very soon I get on with the day and all is fine. I am just wondering where it comes from and if there is some way of dealing with it…..or if I need to! I would really appreciate your thoughts.
What is Depression exactly?
Thank you so much for your honest questioning and giving everyone an opportunity to work with this rich and provocative topic. What we call “depression” can be the catalyst for tremendous learning and spiritual insight if we can bring it into the light of spiritual practice. I do think it is important to mention before I begin, that I am not suggesting a cure for deep clinical depression or giving any kind of medical advice. Whatever I have to offer has come from investigating my own mind through practice and things I have learned from others, including my teachers. So I hope this will be of value to you, whether or not you use it in conjunction with other therapies or not.
I have thought a lot about depression. What is it exactly? It seems that people describe it in different ways. You may feel like your nervous system is over firing. You may feel petrified with fear. You may sometimes get caught in a cycle where everything seems to arise as your enemy – things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother you seem to haunt and disturb you. Depression can also express itself as a feeling of heaviness and a lack of motivation or direction. It is interesting that, as you mentioned in your question, depression can arise at specific times of the day. I have had the experience myself, of feeling stirred up in morning. Many do. Others feel anxious all day, and calm down when the sun gets low and soft. Others begin to feel anxious or lonely at dusk. I’m not sure why.
But whatever its expression, depression seems to have a strong physical component. Something gets stirred up physically. It would be hard to say if the depression began with a physical ailment, or that some kind of outer circumstantial stress instigated a physical imbalance. I don’t think you can separate your state of mind from your physical body. When the body relaxes, the mind will also relax, and also the other way around. In the system of Tibetan medicine they talk about lhung disturbance, which basically means that the flow of the breath and energy is blocked in the subtle body or energy channels. You don’t have to know exactly what that means, but you can feel it.
The Practice of Looking Deeply at Depression
I would recommend allowing yourself to feel the sensation of depression without labeling it or deciding you know what it is. Please don’t judge it or treat it harshly. The minute “it” becomes a solid “thing” in your mind, it stops the flow of moving energy. But if you take a closer look, you will find nothing you can call “depression” but a flurry of changing sensation. To observe things more closely without trying to block anything or judge them takes a little curiosity and courage. To not simply react is counter intuitive to the tendencies you have to contract and try to protect yourself. But it is this kind of reactivity that creates so much pain.
In the morning, or whenever the depression seems to arise, you can sit (or even lay down in a relaxed way or even sit in nature) and bring your awareness to your body. You can start at the top of your head and really let yourself experience the sensation of each part of your body. Let yourself experience the movement of sensation even in your eyelids, the pores of your skin, your ears…keep moving your awareness down all the way to your feel and then back up, and so on. Notice where you contract, how you stop breathing, and where you block sensation.
If you find an area of blockage or pain look at that area and see if there is any singular “thing” there you can call “depression.” Again, if you investigate you will just find a flurry of sensation. Don’t judge anything…let “it” express itself. To not want “it” to be there is the biggest impediment to finding ease. I call this ‘blocking.’ It is aggression to the natural vitality of the mind and body. Something is expressing itself through causes and conditions …can you let it work itself out? All things – joy, despair, boredom, clarity – arise based on causes and conditions. You may not even know what all of these causes and conditions are. But the point is to try not to hold such a narrow ideal of what you consider good or comfortable. The point of practice is to let them arise and dissipate and give this room to move. Respond with non-violence, which means, “don’t block.”
You may find that that blocked morning energy opens up into a deep sense of ease and insight.
How Do We Work with the Rich Energy of the Mind?
I realize it is sometimes really hard to go to work and interact with others or make decisions when there is a lot of energetic disturbance. But I don’t know if I could say that practice instigates depression. It seems to me that when you give yourself the time to practice, whatever you have been trying to avoid or distract yourself from, surfaces. Practice itself is a willingness to look at the mind directly. Many things will arise, but those things are not essentially a problem. In practice, the question is: “how do I work with the rich energy of the mind?” When you begin to ask this question you have arrived at the starting point of practice. Genuine practice requires humility and openness to experience.
It is important to understand that practice is about freedom and learning to enjoy the mind. I often have talked about how, when I was in a long retreat, at times I was only able to bear about 10% of the activity of my mind. I wanted to feel good and familiar with things and felt challenged when difficulties arose, such as loneliness, depression or physical pain. When I experienced relaxation or joy I tried to hold on to it. So there was a lot of grasping and rejection in my meditation.
In my retreat cabin I have a big window looking out at a vast valley. To the North I can see a range of snow-mountains. But when I look to the South there is a vast and open landscape, always covered in a thin layer of mist or fog. I remember how lonely that made me feel. It was like a deep primordial loneliness – a sense of despair. For many months I only looked toward the North. After a while, I became interested in the Southern part of the valley. I didn’t want to block or avoid that loneliness anymore. I became curious. I began to see that that loneliness was deeply profound. It had its own subtle aliveness to it. I began to deeply enjoy this loneliness. My ability to admit that into my experience was empowering and all of a sudden I started to notice that I enjoyed not only 10% of my experience but sometimes 20%, 40%…sometimes 100%. Sometimes I thought: “Bring it on!” I think this is the point of practice – not to keep grasping at what we want and rejecting things we find uncomfortable. “Depression” gives us that opportunity.
My teacher always says that bliss is the result of not grasping and rejecting. When I say ‘bliss’ I don’t mean it in an acid-trippy or new-age-y sort of way. I am just referring to the physical and emotional pleasure that results from our ability to accept our experience. If this is not spiritual progress, what is?
Genuine practice is not limited to the cushion but it is cultivated and strengthened on the cushion. You can watch your mind at work or at home while feeding the kids. If you feel the edge or depression, sit and practice for a few minutes. Just be kind and soft with whatever arises. There is really nothing substantial there but a dynamic display of energy. See it as an opportunity to do something other than reject, block or grasp at wanting to feel different. Lean into it just a little.
The basic attitude or spirit of practice is to make everything an opportunity. If we remember that insight comes from including life, everything that arises serves to increase our confidence, growth, and compassion. This is not a conventional attitude or approach, but it frees the mind, which is the outcome of genuine practice.
This article published with the kind permission of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel