I grew up in the seventies; 1979 was the year of my high school graduation. Next weekend, I will be going to my 30th high school reunion. How time flies, no? One book from the seventies that made a big impact on me was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.
The book is about the author and his young son’s 17-day motorcycle journey across the United States. The trip is filled with a number of philosophical discussions by the author where he explores the meaning and concepts of quality. His approach is that quality has to do with a non-intellectualizing, non-conceptualizing, Zen-like direct view of the universe. Yet he also argues that Western rationality is just as important in seeking understanding.
I like Pirsig’s approach as it applies not only to the practice of law, but depression as well. We need the approaches taken by Western rationality – medication, psychotherapy, etc. But the legal profession would do well to heed some of the advice from the East and its approaches to depression.
In The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, four uniquely qualified experts explain why our usual attempts to “think” our way out of depression or “just snap out of it” lead us deeper into a downward spiral where depression only worsens. Through insightful lessons (and an included CD with guided meditations) drawn from both Eastern meditative traditions and cognitive therapy, they demonstrate how to sidestep the mental habits that lead to depression, including rumination and self-blame, so that one can face life’s challenges with greater resilience.
The authors explain how our trying to outthink depression is problematic:
“When depression starts to pull us down, we often react, for very understandable reasons, by trying to get rid of our feelings by suppressing them or by trying to think our way out of them. In the process we dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. In our heads, we try this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling. We get lost in comparisons of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads”
Lawyers, by the nature of our work, are required to live in their heads a lot. Not only that, our thinking habits are prone to pessimism –we look for problems everywhere and try to fix them. We are the ultimate “fixers”. This can get us into trouble, however, if we are prone to or suffer from depression. The authors point this out:
“Once negative memories, thoughts, and feelings, reactivated by unhappy moods, have forced their way into our consciousness, they produce two major effects. First, naturally enough, they increase our unhappiness, depressing mood even further. Second, they will bring with them a set of seemingly urgent priorities for what the mind has absolutely got to focus on – our deficiencies and what we can do about them. It is these priorities that dominate the mind and make it difficult to switch attention to anything else. Thus we find ourselves compulsively trying over and over to get to the bottom of what is wrong with us as people, or with the way we live our lives, and fix it.”
The author’s solution to this virtual swampland of depression: mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is actually quite simply to do and involves sitting in silence and watching our feelings and thoughts float by the stream of our consciousness. But instead of taking them literally – that such depressing thoughts and feelings are REALITY – we just detach from them and let them continue to float down the river. We stop trying to react to these states by stopping our attempts to try to fix them. We move from a “doing mode” to a “being mode.” We pay attention to a neutral experience – the in and out sensation of our breath. When we notice a thought or feeling flowing by and see that we are getting embroiled with it, we let it go and return to our breath. Check out this great video, “Mindfulness with Jon Kabit-Zinn.”
In “The Zen Path through Depression”, Philip Martin advises us to stop running away from our depression and face it. It can even provide us with a unique type of experience:
“In depression our back is often against the wall. Indeed, nothing describes depression so well as that feeling of having nowhere to turn, nothing left to do. Yet such a place is incredibly ripe, filled with possibility. It gives us the opportunity to really pay attention and just see what happens. When we’ve done everything, when nothing we know and believe seems to fit, there is finally the opportunity to see things anew, to look differently at what has become stale and familiar to us. Sometimes when our back is against the wall, the best thing to do is to sit down and be quiet.”
Part of the quality of our lives, of maintaining ourselves, is learning and growth. The ongoing pain of our depression is a wakeup call that we need to think about how we typically respond to our depression and how we might respond differently – by moving from a doing to a being mode. This can be achieved with mindfulness meditation.