Let’s face it, depression feels bad, but what’s wrong with feeling bad? We may not like it, but it’s not wrong… or right, for that matter. It’s just our experience. Unfortunately we seem to have developed the notion that certain feelings are wrong and need to be eliminated, controlled or changed.
Part of this belief stems from the fact that we live in a “feel good” society, where TV and the press publicize the idea that anything less than absolute happiness, all the time, should be fixed, drugged or therapized. Another, subtler influence stems from the dichotomous nature of western philosophical thought, itself, which separates mind and body, as well as dividing other things into categories that are mutually contradictory, like good/bad, right/wrong, love/hate, etc.
A third, perhaps even subtler factor, stems from the linguistic idiosyncrasies inherent in our language, especially the practice of nominalization, which allows us to turn a process into a thing. For example, we use the word “depression” as if it were a noun with static thing-like qualities, like a bowling ball or an orange. We do the same thing with words like relationship; relationship is not a thing, it’s an ongoing process of relating. In the same way, depression is not a thing, it’s an on-going process of depressing. Viewing it as a solid thing effectively cuts off our readiness to see its process-like variability. Therefore, what might have been transient uncomfortable feelings seem solid, bad and in need of fixing.
We’ve been set up
In a way, we’ve been set up by these powerful, yet often unquestioned, underlying assumptions. But what if we did ask questions; what if we began to deconstruct this whole catastrophe? What would we find? First of all, if we looked deeply into the nature of the depressive process, we’d discover that our feelings are, in fact, transitory and fleeting; they come and go, much like the weather.
Looking deeper still, we’d also discover that it is we who participate in making them rock-solid, permanent and bad. How do we do this? What actually transpires between having a transient feeling of sadness or loneliness and ending up with solid-state depression? Well, besides the cultural, philosophical and linguistic issues already mentioned, it’s the thinking mind that gets in the way.
You are what you think
Thinking, in and of itself, is not a bad thing; it’s the nature of the mind to think. From an evolutionary point of view, it’s what separates us from other living creatures and perpetuates our success as a species. Our mind’s ability to plan, decide, innovate, question, review the past, anticipate the future, and create patterns has kept us safe and thriving; but there’s a downside.
Thinking can get stuck in a self-perpetuating feedback loop that continues long after the triggering situation has passed. I should also add that this thinking mind does not operate in isolation, as the Cartesian principle would have us believe; it’s intimately connected to our feeling body, which is why we feel worse, the more we think negatively about things.
Next time an emotional situation comes up, observe what happens in your body and mind. Notice which physical sensations and thoughts arise in direct response to your experience, notice which feelings, thoughts, images, memories, ruminations and worries continue long after the situation has passed, and notice how these thoughts and feelings seem to build and intensify each other through time.
How does this happen
By way of an example, suppose someone wrongly criticizes you. You initially react with a tightening in the chest or stomach as you recoil into a flood of half thoughts, fuzzy images, partial memories, physical sensations, and emotions. This flurried activity of the body/mind, causes the original tightening to intensify; however, this usually happens so fast, you’re barely aware of it.
Perhaps, at the moment of impact, you froze and said nothing or perhaps you were flooded with adrenalin and felt rage. In an odd way, however, you’ve effectively derailed from the uncomfortable feeling that first showed up with the experience. Later, you continue to ruminate about all the “woulda, coulda, shoulda’s” you didn’t act upon.
You may engage in thinking of ways to isolate and avoid this person or anyone like him in the future. Other thoughts or memories of shame, guilt and hopelessness may set in. Here again, the original feeling of distress is lost, but the thoughts and newly associated feelings continue to fuel the pain with incendiary self-talk.
As you see, you’re no longer reacting to the original criticism, but rather to your thoughts about the experience. Pretty soon the thoughts feel more real than the raw experience and you find yourself immersed in a problem saturated tape loop that seems rock solid, impenetrable and larger than life. And, because we’re a pattern making species, these patterns coalesce and become a tightly woven depressive filter through which life, itself, is lived. Unfortunately, the original feeling of discomfort has never been addressed.
Getting out of the trap
So, how do we get out of this trap? Well, we can start by actively noticing precisely what it is we’re doing, thinking, saying and feeling and how these processes interact to derail us from being present with the immediacy of our experience. Just noticing this process is enough to jump-start the change process because it brings an element of consciousness to patterns that had previously been under cover.
Working with a therapist can help you acquire the skills necessary to separate experience from your thoughts about experience, as well as helping you develop the courage and willingness to explore the feelings you’ve been trying to avoid. In fact, modern cutting edge therapies (including ChangeWork Strategies) have re-discovered what wise sages have known all along: learning to be present with your feelings, as they arise, without suppressing, denying or acting out in your habitual way, is the royal road to fearlessness and the antidote to suffering.
It all sounds so simple, but contacting our deepest fears and the places that scare us, is not for wimps. It requires courage, strength and faith; which ironically begin to surface in a very unique way, as the work proceeds.
Working with non-fear elements
Strength, courage and faith are born from experience in two important, yet paradoxical, ways. First, as you stay present with your fears without avoiding, struggling or attaching to your usual story line, you’ll find distressing feelings begin to pass right through you… like clouds through the sky.
You will have stayed present, touched your deepest fears and not died, which is often our unconscious belief about what might happen. This takes courage, because it feels so downright annihilating to sit through the fire. But the truth is, feelings are transitory and fleeting.
Paradoxically then, this act of courageousness brings a recognition of the true nature of feelings. This in turns brings a deep sense of inner freedom, strength and lightness. Nice to know.
Second, as you explore depression, you’ll discover brief moments of non-depression, lightness, energy and maybe even happiness. These pockets have been there all along… unnoticed and untapped. They were missed due to the tightly woven depressive worldview I spoke about earlier: when depressed, the whole world verifies this by providing us with experiences we define as depressing.
But, the willingness to explore fear allows us to tap into the non-fear components that come along for the ride. The truth is, nothing is as it seems and everything carries with it, its opposite. Also, nice to know. For wrapped up in the unlikely package of fear and depression, is an inner kernel of wisdom, knowledge and even joy.
By deeply touching our fear, we come to know the nature of fear as well as the nature of non-fear elements like joy, compassion, patience and generosity of spirit. Nice perks. Now all you have to do is make the non-fear conditions bigger, longer and sustainable and you’re halfway there.