Mindfulness Therapy: Learning to Sit with Depression
During my work with clients either through Online Mindfulness Therapy Skype sessions or in the office, I find that one of the central problems most people have is that they do not know how to focus inwardly and create a quiet, safe space in which they can engage with their inner emotional suffering. We develop a plethora of secondary reactions of avoidance, resistance or plain resignation. We busy ourselves in activities, anything to avoid facing the inner reality of our anxiety or depression. We talk about our problems, analyze them, and try to fix things through will power and positive thinking, which are all fine in themselves, but only if they come out of a foundation of stillness and inner listening.
The problem is that we do not take the time to cultivate this inner relationship, and that's like trying to fix a problem without knowing all the facts, which is never a good strategy. We need to learn the art of being still and completely present with the anxiety, depression, traumatic memory or other emotional upset; in short we need to learn the art of listening within. Everyone knows the importance of listening without, to a friend or child needing our attention and support. Yet we do not extend this same compassion towards our own inner suffering. Our suffering needs our care and attention, our presence and willingness to just sit with it just as much. Our inner emotions need our attention if they are to heal. This is the primary focus in the work of Mindfulness Meditation Therapy: learning to form a relationship based on listening, openness and being completely present with your emotions. In effect, we make the emotion, the depression or sadness or anger the very center of our meditation and choose to attend to it with kindness, compassion and presence.
Therapy begins the moment a client establishes a mindfulness-based relationship with his or her emotional reactions, and in fact therapy can almost be defined as the process of cultivating the art of inner listening until it becomes the natural response to suffering.
Why is this so important? The attitude of listening and being totally present for our experience has many extraordinary effects, and all of them bring benefit. At the most fundamental level, listening is the process in which we stop reacting and start experiencing. This is what is described as the development of "presence," and this is one of the chief characteristics of mindfulness: being fully present for whatever you are experiencing, without the interference of thinking or further reacting to what you are experiencing. In my book, The Path of Mindfulness Meditation, I define mindfulness as "engaged-presence." It is this quality of acute listening and openness to experience coupled by a willingness to engage and face our emotions, including the painful and disagreeable emotions that we usually avoid or resist.
As a therapist, my primary mission is to help my clients establish this engaged-presence of mindfulness with his or her inner suffering. Mindfulness teaches us how to tune in to our core emotions, and as we do that, we create a space around the pain that I call the "therapeutic space of mindfulness." Reactivity tends to close and contract the mind making it fearful and angry, neither of which helps the healing process. Mindfulness tends to open and expand conscious awareness, and literally makes room in which tight and contracted emotional states can begin to move, unfold and differentiate. In summary: Reactivity inhibits change; mindfulness facilitates change, and this is one of the basic principles of mindfulness psychology.
Mindfulness of our emotions is not the same as acting out the emotion and it is not the same as wallowing in the emotion and feeling bad. The purpose of Mindfulness Therapy is not to re-live emotional suffering, but to change the way we relate to the emotional pain. It is the process of literally "sitting" with the emotion: nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to fix, just being 100% present with the emotion as an object to observe and investigate with care and attention. This shift in relationship from subjective reactivity, in which we are continually hijacked by our emotions, to an objective relationship, in which we can be with our emotions in a state of inner silence, has an immensely powerful healing effect. It literally creates a space in which the emotion can heal itself from within.
One woman described how she saw herself as a victim of incessant worrying and anxiety that produced a state of severe depression. She had tried several forms of talking therapy, but the anxiety and depression persisted. When I asked her what color the anxiety-emotion was, she seemed puzzled. Apparently, in all her previous therapy sessions no one had asked her to look inside and see what was actually there. Talking about emotions is never as effective as actually looking at them directly. After a couple of sessions of MMT she established an inner mindfulness-based relationship with the depression and immediately noticed that it had a black color and appeared as a hard, tight ball in her chest.
Now, for the first time, she had something tangible to work with. As she created a therapeutic mindful space around the black object, it spontaneously began to soften and loosen up, losing its hardness and becoming more like a cloud or fog. As she continued to sit with the emotion, she noticed that the color began to change, becoming gradually lighter. Eventually, she experienced the mental structure of depression as being like the ash left when a fire has burnt itself out. This change in the inner representation of her depression produced profound feelings of release and resolution for her.
The frozen and contracted emotional energy of depression released itself during this process of direct inner experiencing and this led to profound transformation at the core. Out of this change at the core feeling level, her beliefs and thinking also changed and she no longer felt a victim of the compulsive worrying that led to the depression. She naturally began to develop a more positive perspective on things, and all this arose as a consequence of first learning to be present with her depression through mindfulness training. What she witnessed was the depression healing itself from the inside out, and the most important ingredient that led to this healing was simply being present and aware, of being mindful and holding the depression and associated emotions in that inner space of non-reactive awareness that we call mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation can be thought of as a form of "mental massage" in which we bring warmth and healing energy to those hard, reactive places within, and with each gentle touch, suffering begins to respond by healing itself from within. In Online Mindfulness Therapy, I teach clients how to do this "mindfulness massage" so that they can practice the art of inner healing at the core level and learn a totally different way of being with the many challenges of life.
The problem is seldom in the challenges, disappointments and losses themselves, nor in the core emotions themselves, but almost always in the way that we react to these experiences. Mindfulness teaches us how to maintain balance and to avoid becoming reactive. We learn to replace reactivity with responsiveness and prevent the habit of contracting into our emotions and beliefs. Instead we open up a space within in which we hold our emotions with friendliness and spacious presence and this always facilitates healing, just as reactivity always leads to more suffering.
I encourage you to try this for yourself, learn the art of sitting with your depression, anxiety, sadness or anger and watch how it melts in the warm space that we call mindfulness.