How I Beat Depression — Forever
In case you’re taking issue with the word “forever” in the title, let me explain.
There are feelings of sadness and frustration which are a completely normal and integral part of the human experience. It is highly unlikely you can get rid of them, and, once you know how to process and deal with those feelings correctly, you should no longer want or need to get rid of them.
Then there is depression, which is where those feelings get extrapolated by the thinking mind unto infinity. You become sad about your sadness, and a positive feedback loop begins. The thinking mind’s narrative now begins to say, “It will always be like this.” The mind at once recognizes its own capacity for potential endless suffering and, in response, the body shuts down and enters a perpetual “rest” mode, which in turn gets misinterpreted by the mind as wanting to die, giving more rumination and narrative extrapolation, helping sustain the positive feedback loop. All creative faculties shut down also as the mind is plunged back into an animal state of withdrawal, further blocking off avenues of escape. This cycle is definitely something you should want to get rid of, and in this post I’m going to do my best to explain how I broke into it and brought it to a final end.
“Forever” so far has been four months – with no meds. If that doesn’t sound long enough to write a post about, then bear in mind that before this I was cycling into depression every couple of weeks or so, which had made my life hell for the previous ten years. So this long uninterrupted break seems to me to represent a fundamental shift in approach towards emotions and mental management, but I am willing to wait and see.
I have felt sad and frustrated on occasion during that time, but never depressed. I think one of the most important points here is that I now have a repeatable process through which to experience, manage and gain insight from negative emotions – and get my life back on track quickly with the improved understanding gained each time. I didn’t have that before, so negative emotions could very quickly became narratives of eternal hopelessness, i.e. depressive cycles.
The cornerstone of beating depression seems to be the knowledge that you have a plan, from A->B, for how you are going to deal with negative emotions as they arise. If you don’t have that plan – and I believe many don’t – then drawn-out depressive episodes are the consequence. That I have been able to repeat my process with minimal life disruption a few times is the most important indicator that what I have done has been successful.
The following post is an adaptation of a one I wrote on another forum to explore what happened. So there is a break halfway through where I answer a question from another poster which then becomes a longer post where I explain the key theories and practices behind this shift. It is very long, but if you suffer from depression it is well worth reading.
I have had bipolar symptoms for about ten years – particularly depressions which would cycle about once a month and last for a week or two. Some sad thought or other would trigger some process which would declare that the whole thing was fucking pointless and I’d basically withdraw for a week or longer. I described this cycling and the medicine regimen I created for it in my post “Venlafaxine, Phenibut and Choline for Cyclothymia (“Bipolar Lite”)“. That medicine worked very well for several months. However, around two weeks after writing that article, all the thoughts about my life situation which I had been using the medication to block out finally built up to a level which crossed the threshold whereby they could no longer be ignored. I entered a significant depressive phase.
With medication no longer an option, I began performing a practice which, at the time, felt like a “last resort”. I’m not even sure where it came from. I just started doing it. It worked – extremely quickly and powerfully. I was able to repeat that process another two or three times over the next few months with the same success each time. As my confidence grew, I stopped taking my medicine regimen entirely as it was no longer required to work through the emotions in this organic way.
Fast forward a few months later. I was recently reading Daniel Ingram’s amazing book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I was astounded to find what I’d done written practically word-for-word on page 120:
Try this little exercise the next time some kind of strong and seemingly useless or unskilful emotion arises. First, stabilize precisely on the sensations that make it up and perhaps even allow these to become stronger if this helps you to examine them more clearly. Find where these are in the body, and see as clearly as possible what sorts of images and story lines are associated with these physical sensations. Be absolutely clear about the full magnitude of the suffering in these, how long each lasts, that these sensations are observed and not particularly in one’s control.
Lying down, I found these “sadness” emotions in my stomach area, and stayed with them for a long time, say 30 minutes. Sometimes I would fall asleep “into” them which would give strange dreams connected to the feelings – scenes from my past I had otherwise forgotten, and other imagery connected to the theme of sadness.
I have strong concentration. The book taught me that I had already mastered first jhana, I just didn’t know what it was called. So I could stay on these emotions solidly, and would get a combined visual and feeling (visuo-kinaesthetic) representation of them. I mainly experienced them as movement. I just ignored any storylines that arose as I could stay solidly with the emotions. It is important that you stay with the emotions and do not allow yourself to get pulled into any stories that arise.
After about three of these sessions, I remember sitting at my computer and something triggered one of those “sad thoughts”. I closed my eyes, found the emotions in my stomach area doing the exact same thing as they had done in the session – just moving around, predictably – and they no longer bothered me at all. I could just let them move around and resolve a few seconds later, and found they no longer pulled me into the stories which mark the start of a depressive episode.
That was four months ago, and I have not had a single “depression” ever since. A lot of stuff in my life got lighter. I started waking up happy. I also found I could make plans for the future without the cloud of potential depression looming in the distance. It felt like my entire life turned around for the better that week. In MCTB (page 126) Daniel talks about the Aegean Stables, about how sometimes you divert the river to wash out a section of the stable and it stays clean thereafter, even if you don’t clean the entire stable. Well it felt like that.
A couple of weeks after I felt that this new approach and mental state had stabilized, I actually spent some time “re-welcoming” a lot of old emotional patterns I had been repressing. Since now I felt I could deal with them, I no longer needed to repress them. I allowed them to arise, and simply stayed with them with the same method I just described. This allowed them to resolve, and for me to gain the insight and lessons held within them. The line between what is “positive” and “negative” sensations has become blurred and sometimes non-existent when I’m taking this approach. It is all just sensations.
My experience of “mania” also dramatically decreased in response to the elimination of depression. It seems that without a strong “despair” to contrast to, feelings of “hope” are no longer perceived as a dramatic jump to positive affect (which is, I believe, the core essence of mania – it’s a kind of snapback reaction to exiting depression, where the exact opposite characteristics are manifested).
Could you give more details about event which made depression go away?
Do you know what you did and what happened? Care to share it?
The depression going away seems to be based on a set of realizations I made, plus the practice of being able to let emotions just “be” without ruminating on them or making stories about them. So there were “click” moments. I’ll try to summarize these realizations now:
1) Whatever the emotion, however strong it is, if you “find” it and “enter” it in your mindbody field of awareness, it will not hurt any more.
So let’s say it’s excruciating sadness. What I did was turn my “vision” down into my body. So, I actually imagined I was “looking” into my body, from my head downwards, kind of like shining a searchlight into the body cavity, sweeping it around, looking for the emotion. At this point, the experience of the emotion becomes a combined visual and feeling – in other words I can literally see it as well as feel it. So it is in two modalities, “visuo-kinaesthetic”, instead of just one, “kinaesthetic” (= movement = feeling). In this split modality, “looking into” my body, I can find the exact location of the source of the emotion – it’s like a pocket, or a bubble, inside the “whole” of the mindbody. Picture it like an air bubble in syrup or similar. I enter that “pocket”. Pain stops. I am now one with the emotion. I suppose in dharma terms, the emotion is now the “object” of my jhana, but understand that I knew none of these terms back then.
An important point is that, when staying with the emotion, accept the fact that it might be there forever. I literally would say to myself, “It will be here forever.” This stops the mind trying to fight or flee the emotion and allows you to stay with it. The opposite statement is actually true – all emotions (and indeed everything in reality) is impermanent. Things come and go. However, accepting the emotion as potentially permanent in this way just gets your thinking mind off your back and allows you to stay with it.
When you are “in” the emotional pocket, it doesn’t hurt. I consider it like being in the eye of the storm. If I am in my normal headspace, the storm (the emotion) is battering me, demanding my attention. By entering the emotion, it is like standing in the eye of the storm. It’s completely calm. It takes a lot of concentration to stay here, but you can learn that – most likely standard first jhana stuff. When in the emotion, it doesn’t hurt. Now, I just stay here. For how long? For how long it takes. Inevitably, something happens. Typically it was after around 30 minutes. I would get a “pop” and a flood of images/other sense data, then relief (this is often called a “blip” in meditation circles). Sometimes I would fall asleep and enter a dream/vision revolving around, what I believe, to be the kind of “mythical” constructs concerning the source of the emotion – followed by awakening and relief. So you can get some very early memories arising and dissolving as a result of this (just ignore them and consider them a sign that something is working). But, sometimes, none of that happens – you come out and something’s changed but you’re not sure what.
One of the major points of this realization is that I can be free of the suffering of an emotion if I enter it and accept it fully in this way. So that realization kind of filtered down into the rest of me, and it meant that I no longer feared emotions. That fear has never returned. I believe a lot of depression is actually a positive feedback loop that starts with one sad thought or concept which then self-references and amplifies into despair. The amplification is something like fear of depression (which makes you depressed), and so forth. Take away the fear of any emotion and it no longer extrapolates itself into the future endlessly. Depression is, in my opinion, basically just a painful state logically extrapolated into the future infinitely by the frontal lobes. I am sure this is why lower-IQ people (less frontal lobe capacity) are less inclined towards depression.
2) “Invalid attribution”. This is my name for a process whereby some body pain or discomfort you would have had anyway is linked to the “depressive” thoughts and starts to build that chain or positive feedback loop which quickly becomes a depressive episode.
So you have two modes of thought/feeling going on at any one time:
- Your body and its inputs
- Your “checklist” of thoughts you are working through all the time, e.g. “Got to get up and go to work” (and, the more emotionally-weighted a concept is, e.g. “My relationship is in trouble”, the higher up on the checklist it moves in terms of priority and therefore the amount of attention you are inclined to give it).
Invalid attribution is when an (often random and unconnected) feeling in the body gets “invalidly attributed” to a thought cycling on the checklist. E.g. you wake up feeling dehydrated, but you think about going to work. You link the body pain of the dehydration to the concept of going to work. This can easily become a feedback loop and depressive episode if you then ruminate on all the problems associated with going to work – which also become unconsciously attached to the dehydrated feeling and, by now, the cortisol/stress response caused by all the fear of the future you have projected. A feedback loop has started from something silly and quickly got out of hand.
Realizing this by seeing it happen directly allowed me to break these loops before they even started. It became automatic very quickly. This also led to an automatic improving of general lifestyle, e.g. I’ll get up and immediately drink a pint of water these days and start feeling good within about 20 minutes. Obvious to some, maybe, but I was not drinking enough water on waking prior to this. For a short time after this realization, I consciously practised not ruminating needlessly on silly little emotions, cutting those threads and instead just actioning them quickly and rationally. For bigger “issues” I would remind myself of my bigger life plan – saving up money and moving abroad – and getting my thinking mind on actions to further that goal, e.g. turn on the computer and do work, which allowed any sadness emotions to pass quickly and be seen as just transitory phenomena which do not control my timeline.
Another example of invalid attribution is the effect of food on body/emotions. If I ate a curry I would get bowel irritation. I would then unconciously link this irritation to various concepts on my “thought checklist”, so I would link that irritation to general things going on in my life. Again, this can very quickly become a depressive episode via the feedback loops which can be invoked. Via the method in point #1 above, I can now simply “enter” pain from bowel irritation and will find that quickly moves it along = bowel movement = relief. (I found I could alter many of my body’s functions in this way.) So instead of getting all these ideas tangled up, I now have them more automatically split, perceptively, and this came from the insight of being with emotions, and the insights occurred quite by themselves, really.
Another hugely important “invalid attribution” that takes place within a depressed person is the confusion of tiredness with depression; the two states are physiologically identical, except depression has unpleasant additional cortisol/stress effects coming purely from the projected pain-futures. Other than lingering cortisol, depression = tiredness. This is important to understand because energy levels ebb and flow naturally throughout the day. After a heavy meal, for example, energy dips. The depressive person will sense that dip and invalidly attribute it to their life in a very general way, and say things to themselves like, “I’m so fucking depressed” or, “It’s all pointless”. This came purely from eating a meal though! (Another reason to avoid carbs and heavy meals generally?)
Similarly, genuine tiredness towards the end of the day can result in internal dialogue such as, “I want to die”, when it should in fact have said, “I want to rest.” The depressive thought habit becomes a lens through which perfectly normal bodily events are seen as negative and future-projected, which creates far more unpleasant bodily sensations and thus feedback loops. The body has no concept of wanting to die; it is always to rest, if anything. Concepts of death are purely learned things, so any thoughts you have in this vein you must understand are products of your thinking mind. Knowing this allows you to see through the illusion of those thoughts and allows you to make more rational judgments about your body state, e.g. “I am tired” -> take a break, rest etc.
So I broke into all these cycles via insight, and they weren’t really planned; they just happened.
3) Divorcing emotional response from concept/story.
Being able to do the stuff in #1, and also recognizing the inclination towards fallacy where emotions are involved as described in #2, one can deal with the emotions directly and mostly ignore all the concepts/storylines that get written about them by the narrative thinking mind. This represents a significant gain in freedom. I think of it like digging underneath enemy lines and planting explosives underneath the whole lot, rather than fighting them in the field (which just becomes a war of attrition, concepts vs. concepts, thoughts vs. thoughts, which basically cannot be won as the war is being fought on the same level which created it).
It meant instead of trying to “figure things out”, if I caught myself in those kinds of thought loops I would just go and lie down and enter the emotion as per #1 and it would resolve itself and I’d get some sort of insight about it seemingly “for free”.
I think really realizing that 99% of my thoughts were completely pointless and based in fallacy, and were reactive to various emotions and body sensations, meant I could, for the first time, seriously let them go. I think an important part of this is having a bigger plan to be following. So I have a destination I want to get to, and dwelling on silly things becomes meaningless in that context. I’d rather spend that time doing actions which contribute towards my bigger plan, e.g. getting new leads for my business and dreaming up other ways to make money doing things I love. My productivity has increased tenfold since this shift, as it is all part and parcel of a positive general outlook.
Summary of Method
This method requires concentration skills. You need to have cultivated your concentration ability high enough that you can stay with the emotions without getting distracted by and pulled into the storylines the thinking mind comes up with to explain them. If you have never practised meditation before, this is likely to be difficult. You might find yourself in stories about those emotions within a few seconds of trying to just stay with them. This especially applies to depressed people, as they are very well-practised at making such stories and cycling through them endlessly. It is unskilful use of the mind, and skilful use must be cultivated in its place.
In the case that you find yourself distracted into stories very quickly, and cannot seem to stay with just the feelings for more than a few seconds, you need to spend some time cultivating first jhana. That can take a varying amount of time depending on how scatter-brained or prone to indulging “stories” you are currently. Do not be put off, though. Especially don’t be put off by the foreign word “jhana”. It just means being able to concentrate on one thing. I taught breath meditation to my friend just recently who had never meditated before and he reached first jhana on his first session. There is nothing to say you cannot do this, too. Sit down, set a timer for 30 minutes, and see how long you can stay with the breath without your focus drifting into distracting thoughts. If you get distracted, just pull your attention back to the breath. Sometimes you will have to keep yanking it back ruthlessly to get it to stay. Do this. Do whatever it takes. Just keeping bringing the attention back and eventually it will “settle”.
Typically, newbies can “settle” (get some calmness and higher ability to stay with the breath) after 10-15 minutes. Even after just a week of doing this once a day your skill will probably be significantly higher than someone who has never meditated before, and you may be at the point where you can now stay with emotions in this same way for long enough to go through my method in this post.
Concentration is a huge part of being able to stay with the emotions long enough for these “shifts” to happen. However, I feel that more important than this is losing your attachment to your stories. If you are really prone to stories, and on some level you really believe in them and that they somehow represent “reality”, you need to spend some time looking back over the thoughts you have while depressed with extreme self-honesty as to their truthfulness and decide whether entertaining those thoughts and stories has really worked out well for you in the long term.
For people addicted to compulsive storywriting about their emotions (the “content” of their “stuff”), the method described in this post requires a leap of faith. You need to suspend temporarily the idea that your thinking mind and its stories can somehow get you out of this. It can’t and, if you’re honest, it’s only ever made things worse. This method is entirely about withdrawing all faith and confidence from the thinking mind’s stories, and putting that faith instead into the premise that the more “unconscious” parts of your mind and body (the “mindbody”) can, by experiencing those emotions directly and for a sustained period, draw its own conclusions about them, see through the illusion that such feelings are permanent, and make its own permanent shift in approach towards those feelings. This is insight. After this insight is gained, the thinking mind follows suit. It now knows that such emotional states are extremely transitory, and realizes that writing stories about them is pointless and just sustains suffering while offering no real solutions.
The insight gained from the practice allows the thinking mind to let go of its need to control everything. With this need gone, emotions are more free to come and go as they will anyway, and sadness is recognized as a transitory state and allowed to pass through of its own accord. This does not mean you won’t get sadness as a result of a change in life circumstance – it just means the sadness will only get the attention it is due, and not be dwelt upon for the weeks or months seen in depressive episodes.
The bonus is that, once this shift in approach has occurred, you can begin trusting the thinking mind again in many ways, as its solutions are now coming from a more accurate assessment of reality (again, this is insight). So, now, my thinking mind doesn’t start writing “it is all hopeless” or “this will never get better” stories. Instead it starts asking, “What can we do here to move forward? What areas should we look at?” Going through the method in this post is its first port of call if something feels “bigger” than it currently has the answers to.
The longest sadness I had after this shift four months ago was two days. During that time I applied this same method to those feelings and quickly learned the lessons from them I was supposed to learn. Much of this mental reorganization takes place unconsciously, then feeds back the lessons to the conscious mind so it has something accurate to work with. Sadness is a completely natural response to a change in life circumstances and contains within it reflection and insight. This method is how to process sadness “correctly” (in my experience) so the required insight is gained from it, and right action can be taken (using the thinking mind) going forward. I believe sadness is the process via which the right brain reorganizes its reality model in light of significant new information or realizations. My method allows the right brain to “do its thing” in the time it needs, and prevents the left brain (the verbal, “thinking” mind) from derailing the process by writing victim stories and dragging things on longer than is necessary for the shift to occur.
Summary of Depression
I think depression is really just one or two things which interplay then get projected unto infinity by the frontal lobes.
You don’t always have to figure out “where” sad thoughts (or whatever) come from. You just have to realize that they are inherently impermanent and therefore don’t control your timeline. This is why talk therapy has its limits. The “why” doesn’t matter all that much. It’s usually stuff from years ago, and you most likely won’t accurately identify the actual events that contributed to those emotions just by thinking about them. So talk therapy can go in circles positing elaborate theories about emotions and their causes with varying degrees of inaccuracy, but misses the point that you just need to be with the emotions, accept them, and let them resolve on their own and give up their insights, and I achieved that via my method. In reality, if you are going out and living life, and meditating regularly, you will uncover all those “why”s anyway, and be like “ohhhhhh! :)”.
Seriously, I get emails from people all the time where they write out all their “stuff” and their ideas about “where it came from”. I cannot stress enough how inaccurate (though well-intentioned) these analyses are. They’re usually just more stories. The thinking mind is often extremely out of touch with the emotions. It takes its best guess, but it’s usually wrong. The point is not the “why”, but what to do with it. My method is what to do with it (which has worked for me, in any case).
The gift of doing it this way is that, when the emotions are allowed to resolve like this, they will often spontaneously give up their secretes – the “real reason” they exist – often in visuals, memories, and feelings that you “just get it now”. The information becomes available to you in sudden “clicks”. This has been my experience, anyway. Following such clicks, I’ve usually had the thinking mind say something like, “Ohhhh! Well in that case, X, Y and Z” as it provides real actions and plans based on more correct, insightful information straight from the source rather than from its own story-weaving.
This is all about replacing an unskilful and counterproductive processing style (depressive rumination) with a skilful one (insight). It’s about building a repeatable process for handling negative emotions as they arise so that they become a source of growth rather than despair. Once the process had been successfully repeated a couple of times, this provided sudden, massive confidence in my ability to handle anything life throws at me. Until this shift, I had literally stopped pursuing many things that would add happiness to my life as I felt, “If I fail, I won’t be able to handle it, and I’ll never get back from that.” That is fear of negative emotions, and it is this fear itself that often induces depression by encouraging the inaction and withdrawal, and feelings of low self-ability, that are depression’s hallmarks. Nowadays, when considering possible failure, I have instead literally had thoughts like, “Oh, well, if that does happen, I’ll just run my process on it and grow from it.” It’s a complete turnaround from withdrawal to proactiveness.
I have noticed that those who suffer depression the most are often otherwise highly intelligent people. One bad strategy in emotional processing is holding them back from achieving their potential in the rest of their lives. This is ridiculous and has to stop. It took me ten years to figure out my method of doing this, and that’s what’s in this post. I don’t know if it will work for you, but the only way to find out is to try it – preferably at least a dozen times before making any decisions about it.
Any questions, please ask. And I’m also extremely interested in your reports on how it goes.