Depression is one of the most common psychological problems in modern society. It appears in chronic low-grade forms that can drain a person’s energy and in more acute forms that can be deeply disabling. Our materialist culture breeds depression by promoting distorted and unattainable goals for human life. And our commonly held psychological theories make it hard for people to make direct contact with depression as a living experience, by framing it as an objective “mental disorder” to be quickly eliminated. The current treatments of choice – drugs, cognitive restructuring, or behavioral retraining – are primarily technical, and often keep depression at arm’s length. However, in order to help people with depression, we must see how they create and maintain this state of mind in their moment-to-moment experience. This will help us understand depression not merely as an affliction, but as an opportunity to relate to one’s life situation more honestly and directly.
In simple terms, depression can be seen as a “loss of heart.” This view is consonant with the approach of Buddhist psychology, which grows out of intensive study of human experience through the practice of mindfulness meditation. The essence of the Buddhist path is a process of awakening the heart. We could define heart as that “part” of us that is most tender and open to the world. A central discovery of mindfulness meditation is that sanity and vibrant well-being are intrinsic to human nature, because the basic nature of the mind, or heart, is to be open, curious, sensitive, and connected to reality. In other words, our true nature is inherently attuned to things as they are; apart form our conceptual versions of them. For this reason, our basic nature is sane and wholesome. This connectedness to reality is unconditional, or, in Buddhist terms, “unborn and unceasing” – which means that nothing causes it. If we construct elaborate systems of defenses to buffer us from reality, this is only testimony to the raw, tender quality of the open mind and heart underlying them. The basic goodness of the human heart, which is born tender, responsive, and eager to reach out and touch life, is unconditional. It is not something we have to achieve or prove. It simply is.
Bitterness Towards What Is
Although there are many varieties of depression, we could describe this pathology in general phenomenological terms as a feeling of being “weighed down” by reality. The feeling of being cast down leads to a desire to close the eyes and turn away from having to face reality. Depression may also contain anger and resentment toward the way things are. Yet instead of taking a defiant or fluid expression, this anger is muted and frozen into bitterness. Reality takes on a bitter taste. Depressed people hold this bitterness inside, chew it over, and make themselves sick with it. They lose touch with the basic wholesomeness of being responsive to life and become convinced that they and the world are basically bad. In this sense, depression indicates a loss of heart, that is, a loss of contact with our innate openness.
Loss of heart arises from a basic sense of grief and defeat. Specific losses may be involved: loss of loved one, a career, cherished illusions, material possessions, or self-esteem. Or there may be a more global sense of defeat carried over from childhood. In either case, the depressed person feels a sense of powerlessness and loss of control, and is unable to trust reality. The primary sorrow underlying depression is a reaction to the loss of stable reference points that have provided security and support in the past. Yet the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation reveals that this loss of stable reference points is actually happening all the time. Buddhist psychology describes this situation in terms of the “three marks of existence.” These three unavoidable facts of life constitute the basic existential context in which all human life unfolds. The first mark of existence, impermanence, means that things are always changing, without exception. Meditators experience this by observing the ceaseless arising and passing away of their mental and emotional states.
The second mark of existence, called egolessness, follows from this pervasive impermanence. Because everything is constantly changing, no continuous, solid self can be found or experienced. In discovering how they are continuing trying to maintain fixed ideas of themselves, meditators see that the self is a rather arbitrary construction rather than a substantial entity or essence. This discovery can give rise to either profound relaxation or intense fear.
The third mark of existence is that the nature of life always entails pain or suffering. There is the pain of birth, old age, sickness, and death; the pain of trying to hold onto things that change; the pain of not getting what you want; the pain of getting what you don’t want; the pain of being conditioned by circumstances; and so on. Pain is inevitable insofar as being human involves being completely exposed to the larger forces of life and death that are beyond our control.
These three marks of existence do not present any insurmountable problem if we can maintain our basic openness toward reality in the face of them. Psychopathology arises, however, out of freezing into a position of rejecting what is. From a Buddhist point of view, depression results from punishing oneself for the way things are.
Depression sets in when we conclude that there is something basically wrong with us because we experience pain, we feel vulnerable or sad, we cannot hold on to our achievements, or we discover the hollowness of our self-created identity. In feeling this hollowness of identity, we are very close to experiencing the larger openness of our being. However, those who fall into depression are unable to appreciate the fullness of the openness they stumble upon in this experience. Instead they react against this open, hollow feeling and interpret it as bad.
This negative interpretation is an ordinary pathology that all of us experience in one form or another. The openness of human consciousness springs from a ground of uncertainty – not knowing who we are and what we are doing here. Unfortunately, we come to judge this uncertainty as a problem or deficiency to overcome. In doing so, we turn against our basic being, our intrinsic openness to reality, and invent negative stories about ourselves. We give in to our “inner critic” – that voice that continually reminds us that we are not quite good enough. We come to regard the three marks of existence as evidence for the prosecution in an ongoing inner trial, where our inner critic presides as both prosecutor and judge. An imagining that the critic’s punitive views are equivalent to reality, we come to believe that our self and world are basically bad.
Stories and Feelings
Depression is maintained through stories that we create about ourselves and the world being fundamentally bad or wrong. In working with depressed people, it is important to help them distinguish between actual feelings and the stories they tell themselves about these feelings. By “story” I mean a mental fabrication, a judgment, an interpretation of a feeling. We usually do not recognize that these stories are inventions; we think that they represent reality. If we can sharpen our awareness, then we can catch ourselves in the act of constructing these stories and so begin to see through them. One of the most effective ways to learn to do this is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
When practicing meditation, we alternate between simply being present while following our breath, and getting caught up in our busy thought patterns. Mindfulness practice involves first acknowledging our thoughts, then letting them go and returning to a sense of simple presence. In the process, we begin to witness how we are continually making up stories about who we are, what we are doing, and what will happen to us next. With continued practice, meditators can learn to develop a healthy skepticism towards this storytelling aspect of the mind.
Beneath the stories that maintain the frozen states of depression are more simple, fluid, and alive feelings, such as sorrow, anger, or fear. These feelings are quite different from the stories the inner critic constructs from them – such as “I’m no good,” or “I’ll never get it together,” or “I’m just a weak person” – which are judgments or conceptual interpretations that freeze feelings of vulnerability into a more hardened state. Frozen fear leads to a constriction, dullness, and inactivity commonly associated with depression. Yet where there is fear of life, there is also sensitivity and openness to life. Fluid fear allows a person to connect with the tenderness of the heart. Frozen anger is turned inward against oneself and becomes a self-punishing weapon yielded by the critic. Yet anger also indicates a blocked desire to live more fully. Fluid anger is dynamic energy that can drawn on to effect change. When we construct bitter stories about ourselves and the world out of these vivid feelings, they coagulate and turn into the monotones of depression.
Aside from fear and anger, the central feeling underlying depression is sorrow or sadness. Sadness is a particularly interesting feeling. The word sad is related etymologically to “satisfied” or “sated,” meaning “full.” So sadness indicates a fullness of heart, a fullness of feeling in response to being touched by the fleeting hollow quality of human existence. This sense of empty fullness is one of our most essential, direct experiences of what it is to be human. As an awareness of the vast quality and hollow quality of the open heart, sadness connects us with the rawness of not knowing who we are and not being able to control or hold on to our quickly passing life. It invites us to let go of the reference points we normally use to prop ourselves up and make ourselves feel secure. If we reject our sadness or judge it negatively, then its poignant quality, which is vibrantly alive, congeals into the heaviness of depression. In overlooking the opportunity that sadness provides for touching and awakening the heart, we quite literally lose heart.
It is important to help people suffering from depression to be more mindful of their actual feelings, so that they can see through the negative stories told by their critic and touch their genuine, open heart. The more carefully they examine their experience, the more likely they are to discover that it is actually impossible to experience their nature as basically bad. The idea of their basic badness is only a story told by their inner critic; it is always a fabrication, never an immediate felt experience. Therefore, helping people reconnect with there moment-to-moment experiencing, a psychotherapist can help them glimpse their basic goodness and sanity – which is their unconditional openness and sensitivity to life itself. Unlike their fictional basic badness, their basic goodness can be concretely felt.
By John Welwood
John is a psychologist, teacher and author known for integrating psychological and spiritual concepts. He is the author of several books including “Towards a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation.”
You can find him at his website.