Each year the Mental Health Foundation runs a campaign around World Mental Health Day to raise awareness about a particular mental health issue. On the 10th October this year the central theme was Depression: A Global Crisis.
Depression is a common mental disorder that effects 1 in 10 people each year in the UK. It causes people to experience depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. We all know that the way we think and how we handle the way we feel plays a big part in our mental health, therefore, practising Mindfulness techniques can help people change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful experiences.
We thought there couldn’t be a more timely opportunity for us to share an extract from the latest title in our Mindfulness… series – Mindfulness for Black Dogs and Blue Days. Richard Gilpin shares his ongoing journey with his ‘black dog’ – shedding light on this often misunderstood subject – and explores how the art and practice of mindfulness can help to train and mind that faithful companion.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Walk any path and obstacles will arise. It is the nature of the world to confront us with the unwanted. A mindful approach to life is about embracing whatever impedes our flow or blocks our way. We reconcile ourselves with the ungainly aspects of reality and, conversely, find a freedom to move beyond them. It is the same when dealing with depression, an obstacle with a tendency to reappear. The arising of depression is an opportunity to make its acquaintance. In fully meeting it, and knowing it, we can step out of its shadow and live in the light.
Learning How to Play the Blues
Mindfulness practice encourages an opening up to what is occurring in the world around us and within us, be that wanted or unwanted. It is about approaching life in a spirit of friendly enquiry. It is not about trying to maintain happy states or about denying what hurts.
This is the radical invitation of mindfulness: to befriend the painful aspects of existence so as to better understand them, and unbind from any struggle with them. This willingness to meet fully with what comes our way is the antithesis of biological drives to destroy or flee from unpleasant experiences. The practice of mindfulness draws as much upon our tolerance and fortitude as our capacity to be kind.
Rather than viewing difficulties as obstructions to what we conceive as ‘progress’, might it be possible to see them as opportunities in our quest to live more freely? This is the challenge of mindfulness when approaching the ‘problem’ of depression. A brief consideration of some basic truths about clinical depression suggests the good sense of relating to this common mental state with interest rather than resistance:
1. It is a time-honoured human experience.
2. It can seriously undermine your quality of life.
3. Mild or severe, swift or enduring, it is always unpleasant.
4. There is no reliable cure for it.
5. It has a tendency to return.
There you have it: five short statements of fact that you probably wish weren’t so. And, incidentally, five statements that are also true for many other aspects of human psychology.
Resistance is Futile
It is understandable that depressed states give rise to powerful urges to get rid of or somehow change them – in short, to avoid them. Avoidance is a fundamental human strategy for dealing with uncomfortable situations. It works really well when we are confronted with physical threats; but it fails hopelessly for ‘internal’ problems like depression because it sets up a painful struggle with subjective experience. At best, attempts to avoid discomfort result in suppression of thoughts and feelings, which only increases inner tension and dis-ease.
In terms of depression, avoidance of ‘given experience’ is the ground upon which all species of mental negativity grow: the critical commentaries and pervasive judgements; the compulsive focusing on the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be; the impatient straining to be somewhere else. In our quest to live with greater contentment, avoidance is a non-starter.
Turn On, Tune In, Let Go
Mindfulness, in contrast, offers a means to approaching ‘given experience’ regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleas-ant. It is all about a willingness to experience what is being experienced, and an openness to allowing things to arise and pass away in their own time. Such a stance is the essence of what many wisdom traditions refer to as ‘letting go’.
In extending our boundaries of tolerance, we find the capacity to stand steady amidst the storms in our mind. This points to one of the contradictions of awareness practice: it is a ‘non-doing’ rather than a ‘doing’. Existence happens all by itself, as does the awareness of it. All we actually ‘do’ is keep cultivating the intention to remain awake to what is happening. Paradoxically, this facilitates a greater control of the mind.
To work mindfully with depression, then, is to ‘lean into’ it, to explore its textures and energies and its impact on the mind and heart. Such an attitude eases the inner contractions that constitute depression.