A fairly recent television ad for an antidepressant that shall remain nameless used the tagline "Depression hurts." And really, you couldn't say anything more truthful about this amorphous and much-studied yet little-understood condition. Depression can sap the life out of you, make you feel worthless, self-destructive, and like there's nothing in the world that's real except for the pain. I know the feeling, believe me. I know how people with depression can be so sensitive to painful situations and triggers that we can sometimes literally be afraid of normal human interaction for fear of the pain. We may pop pills, abuse drugs or alcohol, or numb ourselves in a myriad of other ways just to feel that we can cope. Let's face it simply: Depression sucks.
So how can something so painful be our teacher?
One of my favorite authors is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Her book "When Things Fall Apart" sits on my bookshelf, dog-eared and weatherbeaten from much use. Pema was the first person who taught me that painful situations, including depression, are here to teach us something. Another non-dual teacher, Pamela Wilson, teaches that painful feelings are here to sit satsang with us -- that is, to engage in a teaching and learning dialogue. When we are depressed, we either struggle to feel better or we give up and wallow in feeling lousy. Neither of these tactics is likely to make the feelings of sadness, lethargy and hopelessness go away. Medication, though it can be an important part of treatment, only covers up the feelings; excessive talk therapy, though also potentially healing, at its worst simply gives us the chance to endlessly ruminate on our problems. What if there was a way to walk the middle ground, and engage with the hard feelings, even while engaging in other forms of treatment? When we're tired of fighting the sadness and tired of feeling bad, can we face the depression with compassion and curiosity and ask it what it's here to teach us?
Here are five ways you can let depression be your teacher:
- Start a mindfulness or meditation practice. I know what you're thinking: "Oh, no, not another person telling me to meditate." But if you can't or don't want to sit formally, practice mindfulness and presence in your everyday life, and start a spiritual or grounding practice, even if it's only one minute or so -- set an intention for your day before you head out the door. The practice of continually bringing yourself back to the present moment will serve you for a lifetime and will eventually lessen your tendency to wander off into ruminations and negative thought-stories that can contribute to low mood. This step teaches us to stop and pay attention.