The Problem of Now in Recovery from Depression

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For a long time, I found it hard to relate to the idea of living in the present moment as a method of recovery from depression. The present never seemed all that attractive when I felt smothered by its darkness. That’s the way it had been in the past, and it seemed there would be a lot more present moments like those in the future.

Letting go, living only in the moment, opening to the timeless present, finding that the eternal truth was already in me – it sounded so effortless, requiring just a change of perspective, a choice to live differently. And that’s the way it was too often portrayed in the mass marketing of New Age culture. So I resisted looking into it more deeply.

Not so long ago, I decided to fight off my resistance and take a serious look. I started reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and once I got past my mental battles with it, I found a lot that resonated with my own experience.

Like many, I’d had a few important healing experiences that had drawn me into a different consciousness, one free of a sense of time as well as depression. Some of these had occurred suddenly and unexpectedly, as I tried to describe in posts like this one, but others had come more intentionally while I was immersed in the act of writing.

When I could bring all my energy to it – putting aside the innumerable distractions – I experienced a different state of mind and feeling, a sort of alternate wavelength of living. My concentration was so complete that mental chatter stopped. The words became transparent as they brought out ideas I hadn’t thought about before.

It’s still like that. There’s no awareness of time, no judging and no depression fighting me every step of the way. As I’ve written here before, there is only a richness of that moment of living, a feeling of oneness with a larger self, free of the usual constraints that narrow my experience. It’s not like a high to meet an uncontrollable craving or ease an inner pain. It simply is.

Those were the moments that most resembled Tolle’s sense of the Now, but he goes far beyond isolated moments of insight to a sustained being in a present that has no measurement in time. It’s a state of oneness with all life, without the boundaries that cut us off from each other. Such a state is part of many traditions – Buddhist, Hindu as well as mystical forms of Christianity and Islam.

That’s well beyond my experience, and, as Tolle and every other writer says, it’s impossible to put that state of being into words. I’m much more concerned with Tolle’s method for cutting through the resistance that blocks out such a level of consciousness. That’s what hit home for me because it’s similar to the way I’ve freed myself from depression.

The method consists of detachment from thinking that narrows the sense of who we are. Depression was a powerful force in my life because I identified myself so completely with it. I believed it defined me accurately; there was no healthier self apart from it. Whenever I felt better, I still believed in my own inadequacies. Depression wasn’t the problem. I was.

Until I could detach from that identification and see that I had all the symptoms of a condition known as depression, I couldn’t begin to heal. But when I could separate myself, I could observe what it was doing and work on ways to stop it.

Tolle applies a similar approach much more broadly to get at basic ways of thinking about life that conceal its spiritual reality. What I find most relevant to dealing with depression is his discussion of breaking the hold of time. What he means by this is psychological time.

Living within the boundaries of psychological time means preoccupation with memory and anticipation.

As it concerns depression, it’s the constant obsessing on all the failures and disappointments of the past, recreating old patterns of behavior and becoming consumed by anxiety about what will happen in the future. When I’m locked into that frame of thinking, all I can see in the present is what my depressed mind wants to see – reflections of the same worthless life I feel I’ve always lived.

As Tolle emphasizes, when detached from the patterns of psychological time, it’s possible to accept them – not to be swept under again – but to see them as an observer and find out more about the way they’ve shaped and limited life. Then it becomes easier to experience the present without projecting pain, without pulling it into the past. For Tolle that leads to the spiritual state of being he calls eternal.

For me, detachment has led to freedom from depression and the ability to experience the vitality of living. That’s nowhere near the eternal, but it’s plenty for now.

What has this concept of the Now and living in the present moment meant to you? Has it helped undo some of depression’s damage?

16 Responses to “The Problem of Now in Recovery from Depression”

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  1. Donna says:

    Four years ago, I found myself so pre-occupied with spinning thoughts (depression didn’t slow them down) and the drain of caregiving responsibilities, I naturally fantasized about escape. Only it wasn’t merely fantasizing. It had become obsessing. Any place and any circumstances would be preferable to those in which I found myself. I spent hours online every day looking for apartments in other cities, other states. I watched YouTube videos about how to change identity and be swallowed by anonymity, as in the story of Jonah swallowed by the large fish. Digestive juices and all, I imagined being carried away from all I had known. The caveat was my brain would be going with me. The same old brain housing the same old memories and the same sense of spinning out of touch.

    I love words. They give form to what is possible in a way that can be shared with others. My special escape is finding the right words to form poems. These carry me toward the Eternal. Veni vidi scripsi. I came, I saw, I wrote. So I could unburden my pain to a great degree. But carrying all these words around also became a burden I wanted to escape.

    I began to practice wordless awareness. When a word started it’s journey to link up to other words in my head, I knew those words would shape my reality and lead me where I might not want to go. So I banned them, one by one. I turned them away. Awareness without mental description. Sensory input without identification. Simply being.

    The result was so strange and unexpected. After one hour of wordless awareness, I had a difficult time reconnecting with words. Very much like one of those naps of soundless depth where you come back to the surface not knowing the day, the hour, where you have been or where you might go. And you carry that feeling around with you for a while till you can shake it off. After my amazing hour without words, it took 3 days to return fully to my senses. I walked around in a dissociated state, deeply relaxed, deeply breathing, in a trance-like state, but finally coughed up on dry land and glad to find myself there.

    So now, for briefer periods, I can re-enter that state of wordlessness to refresh myself, to reduce anxiety, and to give no ground to the onslaught of accusatory voices depression throws at me. A respite. My sanctuary city.

  2. Gemma says:

    I’m curious to know how Eckhart advises dealing with a state of depression which feels like overwhelming sadness in the present moment. I cannot observe my mind and the reason / thinking which leads to the sadness because there’s nothing there. It’s just a feeling which is heavy.

    My body is hurting, aching. tired and heavy. I can feel that and observe it, I don’t know why. I’m observing my thoughts but finding to reason for the sadness or the physical symptoms.

    I try to stay in the moment but am not finding joy because of this cloud that I cannot seem to shake off.

  3. Steve says:

    This has been the central struggle of my life — trying to stay in the now. Thanks for the great post. I recently posted my own thoughts on my blog here: http://thegallowspole.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/awareness/

    Steve (thegallowspole)

    • john says:

      Thanks, Steve –

      It’s always great to know when a post gets through to someone. I struggle too, and I’m sure Tolle and the Buddhist writers would all say – struggling is the problem.

      I look forward to reading your post.

      John

  4. Louise says:

    John, it is but a glimpse. It is not constant, but it is enough to make a difference in how I live and view life.

    • john says:

      Hello, Louise –

      That’s very true. Most of us, after all, will only get those glimpses, and each one gives me a lot of belief in life that depression undermines.

      John

  5. Marie says:

    Hi, John –

    For whatever reason, I can be in “now” fully when I read, write or create music. When I do those things, time stops for me.

    But, first, I have to turn off the TV.

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

    • john says:

      Hi, Marie –

      Writing does that for me too. That’s the way I most frequently experience losing time and thought-buzz – also awareness of other moods and depression. It’s a reminder of the power of focusing attention. But definitely – no TV!

  6. Karen says:

    I feel some of the same immersion when I write, no matter what the subject is. It’s what some writers and psychologists are calling “flow.”

    To me, the increasing understanding that so much “mental” illness is brain illness is liberating. I can stand back and think how interesting it is that my brain runs my whole perception of life. It’s exciting but frightening at the same time. As an observer, I’m fascinated. As the person inside the brain–or the illusion of a person represented inside it–I wonder how powerless I am or what the levers of control might be.

    At least that view relieves some of the guilt about feeling at fault for so many bad things, lost relationships, missing something. When my doctor helped me put into words why my trip to Italy wasn’t a wonderful experience, that my emotions were blunted, either as a side effect of a medication or by the depression itself, it made “me” feel more accepting. Yes, my emotional blunting kept me from the kind of experience someone else might have, but I gained something from it and did something difficult. It was a physical effect that kept the whole experience at a distance, but I could have been blind or deaf. That wouldn’t be my fault either.

    The trouble with being in the moment is that chatter between the mind and the brain. My brother, who is not clinically depressed, practices yoga and meditation seriously. He says he doesn’t try to clear the mind, he tries to let the thoughts just pass through and not listen to them.

    I think it’s been found that when one is in a depressed state, the brain is more active in the memory centers related to unhappy or fearful memories. I think of that as a filing system that has an emotion attached to a memory for retrieval. If you’re in a state of pain, your brain automatically wants to examine the circumstances. Whatever your emotion at the time, it gathers up related memories, which because of the emotional tagging, reinforce the emotion itself.

    Can an act of will select thought from a different part of the library? Maybe, but I don’t know what keeps us from trying very often.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen –

      That’s definitely one seriously broken retrieval system that brings back only the nightmarish memories – my whole being always took them in obsessively. They seemed to define all I had ever been. I found it was not an act of conscious will to switch to different memories. It was really a shift in my beliefs about who I was – the depressed persona fell away. Then it didn’t matter which memories were triggered. They were accepted as parts of life, not as reflections of failure and doom. So I think the problem is in the interpretation of what is recalled rather than the memories themselves. I’m sure all this correlates with activity in different parts of the brain, but all I can deal with is my mental and emotional experience. One way of thinking about all this just works better than another.

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment – and sorry you felt emotionally blunted during that trip.

      John

  7. Ashley H. says:

    I know that attempting to live in the present is a wonderful way to combat anxiety, in addition to depression. It’s always a goal of mine, but an abstract one at that. My “now” moments are usually the most anxiety-free moments I have.

    • john says:

      Hello, Ashley –

      Realizing the stillness of presence – as well as the process of taking down the barriers that hide you from yourself – is a powerful method of setting aside anxiety. My wife is practicing this now, and it’s been great for her.

      Thanks for dropping by – I hope to see you here again.

      John

  8. For me depression has become a defense, as well, so I don’t have to deal with the present feeling/thoughts/behaviors. Basically, I’ve been depressed all my life. Their are phrases like living in “the here and now.” My favorite and I’ve had jewelry made into the one word that also is part of mindfulness. It is to simply “BE.” Be who you are in the present and aware of all thoughts, feelings and actions of the time without judgement. I keep reminding myself to “just be.” This has been helpful in that it keeps me focused on now instead of the past or future. But, even thoughts of the past or the future can be part of the present…I have to do an internal check.

    Sorry for the rambling.

    CC

    • john says:

      Hi, CC –

      That’s a great description – depression as a defense against the present. It certainly blanks out everything. Having a focal point to remind you to just be is helpful for me too, though I find I’m often putting most of my mental energy into batting down the droning self-attacks of depressed thinking. That feels like a victory but keeps me short of really being fully present much of the time.

      I hope things are going well for you!

      John

  9. Louise says:

    I have found I can only live in the Now when I recognize who I am not. I am not the thoughts in my head. The key is observing the ego’s tireless work of deception. When I can observe the ego in action, I am able to then witness my true self, which is the observer and non-physical. This realization instantly puts me in the Now.

    • john says:

      Hello, Louise –

      That’s an interesting way to put it. Looking back, the perception of not being the depressed thoughts in my head was a big breakthrough. But I didn’t really get past that insight and the great relief it brought. You’re fortunate to have found a way to shift your consciousness so completely out of the physical realm.

      John

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