As a short term measure, any self-awareness orientated form of meditation is not an easy experience for a depressed person. Working with an approach that takes you out of yourself can be calming, but any looking inwards means staring into the face of your own distress. As a short term consequence, it tends to result in feeling worse. But that’s not the whole story.
A couple of months ago I decided to try and break the cycles I have lived with, where falling into burnout, despair and destructive levels of self-hatred have been a routine part of my life for years. Normally I fight my way out of these patches and back to ‘normality’ and just keep going until it all happens again. To stop doing that, I have to deal with the underlying issues. As meditation is a big part of my life, it seemed like a tool I could work with, and so I started doing the thing it is generally advised you don’t do. I started sitting in a state of awareness with my own depression.
At first, it was just stepping into a world of pain, much of which offered no sense. There were some really tough days. What kept me at it was the absolute determination that I wasn’t going back again into a state of being dangerous to myself, and that while sitting with it was hideous, it wasn’t a wanting to die kind of hideous and therefore something different was happening. I trusted my intuition and I stayed there.
Slowly, memories and other emotions started to surface. Shame, humiliation, suppressed anger, resentment, a whole array of really dark, generally considered negative emotions. Up they came, from wherever I had been hiding them. It was like pulling out barbed wire for a while, the process of getting these things out acutely painful and often disturbing. Once they were out, it was possible to look at them, to ask where they came from and what they meant, what they wanted and what they were afraid of. I cried for things that happened years ago. I recognised things that had pained and shamed me which I had not been able to deal with on those terms when they happened.
It has been a bloody awful process. It has been a long, dark journey full of hurt, the memory of old hurt, the painful recognition of things I have not previously been able to be honest about.
In the normal scheme of things, eight weeks is a reasonable turnaround for another burnout and collapse into self-loathing and despair. So far, there’s been no sign of it. I am discernibly suffering from depression, my mood is often low and I am short of energy, but this is a liveable-with sort of depression and the other thing is not. I have a degree of calm and self acceptance that was not available to me before. My dreams are strange, and suggest some very deep shifts taking place, and what I need to do is keep my nerve, keep sitting with this and let the process roll.
I know the general wisdom is that this sort of journey should be steered by a trained professional. Given that professional scrutiny makes me deeply uneasy, it seemed better to go it alone. I have total ownership of what I am doing, and total responsibility and control and because of my history, this matters. I need ownership and control of myself; the loss of those things is part of the problem. I need space to sit with what isn’t ok – not being allowed to do that is also part of the problem. I need to let me be a priority for a while, because I’ve not had time or space to do that before, either.
And so, on a regular basis, I sit down with my fears, my shadows, and with the black dog and I ask them what they want. Gradually, they’ve started trusting that I could take them seriously, that I am no longer part of the problem in trying to deny them. Slowly, and occasionally they speak, and out of that process comes both the need and the opportunity to change who I am, how I think about my past and what I do with other people. It’s not easy, it’s a slow, troubled process, but it works.
Don’t meditate with depression as a one-off thing. That just makes you feel worse. If you’re willing to step into it for the long term as a process, other things can happen, and they will be challenging at least for a while, but if you need to make radical changes, then there are no smooth and easy ways of doing that. I’m not especially recommending this as an approach unless, like me, you just don’t have many options left, at which point, it is discernibly an option.