Afflictive Emotions: Depression

mistyoberaudorfFor the purposes of this discussion, depression does not refer to any of the mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. This more severe depression is often the result of some combination of genetics, physiological and psychological factors, as well as environmental context. Major depression is a medical condition that requires treatment from a mental health professional or physician. Mindfulness practices may be quite helpful for people with clinical depression, but they are not meant to replace treatment. Please visit my psychology practice website, Ochester Psychological Services, LLC, for more information about and resources for clinical depression and other mental health disorders.

What I refer to here as depression is an afflictive emotion and a transient mental state. It is characterized by a sense of dissatisfaction and discouragement coupled with a preoccupation with “I”, “me” and “mine” that can lead to unhappiness, listlessness, weariness, apathy and inertia. Human beings tend to be very self-referential and we become discontent when we feel that our strongest desires and most firmly held expectations are unmet or if we believe we cannot escape from or eliminate that which is unwelcome.

As with the other afflictive emotions, depression arises from a misperception of reality and the attachment and aversion that results. Instead of seeing things as they are, we tell ourselves stories about our experiences, judging them as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, pleasant or unpleasant. We work to get more of or keep the “good” things and avoid or eliminate the “bad” things. When we fail to hang onto what is wanted or escape what is unwanted, we may, for a long while, try even harder, striving to gain control of our experience. Even when we succeed, we find it is only temporary. Over time we begin to feel increasingly discouraged, demoralized, and bitter, further feeding the cycle of attachment and aversion. This results in a habitually constricted state of mind and an ever narrowing perspective.

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.  – Buddha

We can get so caught up in lamenting or striving, that we aren’t truly present. Instead, we live in regret of the past or dread for the future. If we can slow down and truly be with our experiences, we often find that things are not what they seem. An example of this is a movie monster that seems so dreadful before it makes its appearance on the screen. Once we see it in its full glory, the horror begins to fade. Another example is an object you have desired for a long time. It is most wonderful in the wanting, but its magic and charm begin to dissipate almost as soon as it has been acquired. This discovery, when unexamined, can lead to more stories about ourselves or the world that further entrench us in depression.

An antidote to the afflictive emotion of depression is lovingkindness and compassion. These practices soften our bruised, hardened and defended hearts. When we wish happiness for ourselves and others, we interrupt the cycle of blame and resentment. We start to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole and we feel less alone. We become less judgmental and more open. Patience and understanding increase. Curiosity allows for gentle investigation and clearer seeing. Our constricted view expands and possibilities open to us.

If you’d like to give one of these practices a try, here is a short loving-kindness meditation from the University of New Hampshire Health Services:

You can also learn these practices and build a foundation to support them by taking an 8-week mindfulness course. Through my psychology practice, I lead a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course every spring and fall. This program uses a combination of mindfulness practices and CBT to help people relate differently to their emotions. I also co-lead a Mindful Self Compassion course that helps people learn to befriend themselves and treat themselves with kindness so they can respond more effectively to difficulty

May all beings everywhere,
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind,
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food.
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests.
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit.

May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May they never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed.
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.

For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.

– Shantideva, Dedication Prayer

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