Meditating through Depression

These are journal excerpts about my fitful beginning work with meditation as a guide through depression.

After a day of feeling the chaos of panic, immobilized at work, I went to see JL, first therapist in years. This guy is real. He wasted no time, quickly running through some patterns he observed (explaining that he was hurrying things up because I had been through therapy) and then hit on something that caught me off guard completely. He said he knew how much I loved my brother, he could hear it in what I said, he could feel it in his body. At that, realizing it was true, I wanted to cry, almost did, but covered it with a forced jerky laugh, fooling no one. I was right there, ready to let loose with the feeling I have been sitting on for so long. He explained that he had methods, he did not shoot from the hip. He realized he could have pushed harder about my brother and gotten somewhere, but he prefers to work carefully, using the models he knows from Buddhist psychology. The guy wanted me to know he’d been around, as he says, raised in different cultures and countries. This should be good. I like his attitude: We can break that cycling, that pattern, we can break that, I guarantee it. Who talks like that these days? I sense in him that he’s witnessed, probably experienced, conversion or at least deep insight within the light of a powerful soul. But he’s not trying to become my guru – at least I hope that’s true.

Fast forward a few days, and I’m messed up again. I dragged myself around at work, unable to concentrate, aware only of wanting to break out of the office prison with its cash flow problems and staff tensions. I was also angry at JL as I thought back over incidental remarks he’d made about depression becoming an artifact of advertising – that seemed insulting when said to someone who first ran into the problem decades before anyone even talked about it or named it. And of course the forbidden subject never got anywhere near the mass media. I argued with him in my mind and felt myself falling into a typical pattern of battling with a dominant male, damned if I’ll let another guy glibly analyze me, and in so doing establish power over me. That male to male contest is so basic (I’ve started analyzing again!), a primitive drive to kill the rival men and possess the women – the caveman buried deep but still whacking against the shell of social rules. There is so much savagery ready to rip through civilized rationality. And I go on and on like that – I guess it’s a way of raging myself out of panic. Bad swap – one smash in the head for another.

Then it was back to JL. He went through my psychic profile based on a test he’d given me that first time. “I’m talking to your psyche now, not to you.” Well that’s interesting – to be a puzzled witness to this communication between a therapist and the invisible me. But even though I was eavesdropping, it’s helpful to hear how JL organizes the forces inside me or rather in this psyche guy. How much is obsessive, how much depressive, strains of anxiety, phobia, restlessness – he got pretty well the highlights of how the psychic force splits up and reshapes the struts of a soul. Then he gives something new – for me – a series of meditation assignments to help change things. He says they can even body chemistry. I will keep a journal – not hard since I’m doing `something like that now. We’re starting on loving and kindness as well as relaxation. He taught me a nice meditation reviewing the people who have brought love and happiness into my life, then the people whom I have given warmth and happiness to. Then I pray for compassion, for ?? – I knew I would forget the words! Depressed mind likes to blank out on important things. Anyway, it has to do with warmth and self-acceptance and peace and relaxation. Twice a day I do this – not forgetting to exercise for an hour a day and to write in the journal. At least I’ve got part of that going.

I spent this day completely nervous and unfocused, increasingly anxious as each hour passed filled with small tasks I didn’t want to do but somehow had to. None of them helped me with issues at work – I’m completely stressed out about getting forward movement on a couple of cases. All this fits with JL’s portrait of my psyche – lots of nervousness, lots of unfinished projects, lots of obsessing, little focus. Tonight I finally made time to meditate, just focusing on keeping the belly soft – awful image since I feel so fat – but I found what power there is in the act of concentration. It was late but even with eyes closed and concentrating on this one thing, there was no sleepiness, only the intensity of mental energy, a cleansing feeling, and a waking up. This is my real beginning on the assignments, and I can see that doing this twice a day with a lot of walking will help restore me.

Interesting to see how just hearing the psychic profile from JL has helped relax me at home. That’s part of what L wanted in pushing me into therapy – or any damn thing that would make me easier to live with. She gets the raging, when I can’t see anything good, and then she gets the loving side, when I’m me again, attentive, baffled that I could ever be so crazy. All that twisting rage in my gut, all that obsessing, paranoia, panic and general stress – they all seem at the moment like barriers to fear. And fear of what, exactly? What monster is going to break out, what caveman with his club, what horrible wreckage and carnage will I cause? I’ve had a few clear-headed moments – like the one years back when I understood deep down that my feelings of anger when coming home masked the real fear of losing my family. This pervasive stress and anxiety washes out everything else.

But I’m reaching for the words JL has been teaching me, trying to focus away from that chaos, focus on what? What do I catch onto in this static? Breathing in, breathing out – I have to keep remembering that simple starting point. Count the breaths, focus on the in-rush, the outflow. How high can I count before my mind wanders away. Just look at the thoughts, the feeling flashes, don’t get too close, just watch the jumble from a distance. JL said the fear was what I most wanted not to feel, but at this point fear is floating on the surface of a sea, and I’m looking at it. Is that scummy stuff really a part of me? But I turn back to my breathing – I keep losing count. It feels so simple, so refreshing just to pay attention to breathing – yet how hard it is to hear that constant rhythm in my body when I’m all shot nerves and drained by panic. At least I can hear it now. Maybe tomorrow I can remember all the words of the loving kindness meditation.

14 Responses to “Meditating through Depression”

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  1. Shinade says:

    Hi John,
    I also am dealing with all of the issues you speak about here. And your imagery is fantastic in relation to the feeling.

  2. brainmneu says:

    Fantastic. Must admit that I thought your therapist sounded a bit odd at first but it’s great to hear how the experience is helping you.

    Congratulations and well done.

  3. Dano MacNamarrah says:


    My Cognitive Therapist taught me the breathing technique I believe you refer to. It can be incredibly hard to do, when depression keeps you under the dark waters.

    Also, through her help, we worked through my incredible fear of my own feelings and memories.

    Although I am only just coming up for air again, I truly believe that facing the fear and speaking from my heart, has made my life richer, my soul stronger and my mind better.

    This, I think, is why I have stayed out of the hospital eighteen months, a record for me. I am in touch with my moods and call my p-doc ASAP when I start to crash. The result is that instead of waiting until I’m so sick I have to be locked up for months, I am able to reach out for help.

    I wish you all the best in this arduous journey that you are on. I hope that you can find the help you so need, that your suffering can be eased and your mind calm and clear.

  4. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    It sounds like some good things are happening for you.

    Hope it keeps on working.

    To Merely Me: don’t try to quiet the mind – you’ll just rebel. Welcome its jumpiness, observe how it can jump from this to that (how agile, energetic, beautiful in its own way) and by doing this you find a calmness.

  5. says:

    Mindfulness is the way to go. It is really easy to practice daily. The awkwardness or anxiety of “how am I doing” is normal when you start and diminishes as you pratice. Some coaching on staying focused during your meditation should reassure you that you’re actually doing just fine. There are also a couple simple things to do during the day when you get tense or feeling as if you’re about to spiral off track. You can use a silly word or phrase, with a deep cleansing breath to recall the relaxed feeling and re-direct your mind to present time. The goal is to not be distracted unnecessarily by yesterday or tomorrow. Your past experiences good or bad hopefully make you a wiser more capable person. There is something to be said for planning for the future but not at the expense of being unable to concentrate on the task at hand. As Dr Kabat-Zinn has aptly put it “you already are the person you want to be”. We all need to understand and be patient with ourselves regarding where we are on a given day. Continuing to “practice being present” can only help everyone. So… where do you want to go today. Anything is possible!

  6. Aiminghigher says:

    In 1978, Psychology Today magazine reported that a “‘substantial number’ of meditators developed anxiety, depression, physical and mental tension and other adverse effects” (San Francisco Examiner, September 10, 1989, p. E3). “In 1980, the West German government’s Institute for Youth and Society produced a report calling TM a ‘psychogroup’ and saying that the majority of people who went through TM experienced psychological or physical disorders” (Edward Epstein, “Politics and Transcendental Meditation,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 1995, p. A1).

    On May 29, 1989 the West German High court ruled the study valid.

    Among the subjects studied:

    * 76% of long-term meditators experience psychological disorders — including 26% nervous breakdowns
    * 63% experience serious physical complaints
    * 70% recorded a worsening ability to concentrate
    * Researchers found a startling drop in honesty among long-term meditators
    * Plus a detailed examination of the history, culture, and secret teachings of the TM movement.

    The psychological disorders most prevalent were tiredness (63%), “states of anxiety”
    (52%), depression (45%), nervousness (39%), and regression (39%). 26% had a
    nervous breakdown and 20% expressed serious suicidal tendencies.

    Have you ever heard of “relaxation-induced anxiety,” or RIA? Instead of relaxing during meditation, RIA sufferers feel distressed. Psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University monitored 30 chronically anxious people during guided meditation. Seventeen percent indicated that their anxiety got worse. A previous study led by Dr. Frederick Heide at Pennsylvania State University reported that the same happened to 54 percent of the subjects. Symptoms of RIA include panic attacks, sweating, a pounding heart, spasms, odd tingling sensations, and bursts of uncontrollable laughter or tears. RIA can also aggravate conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression, asthma, and bleeding ulcers, that were previously stable.

    What physiological changes explain RIA? During meditation, the brain releases serotonin. People with mild depression might enjoy the increased levels of serotonin because the neurotransmitter can ease their mood. Drugs like Prozac mimic this effect. However, too much serotonin can cause all of the symptoms of RIA, according to Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. In some cases of schizophrenia, an excess of serotonin coupled with meditation can drop-kick someone into psychosis.

    Why do some people seem to benefit so greatly and are so pleased with their meditation practices and yet so many people have physical and mental side effects like:

    * Depression and suicidal thoughts
    * Insomnia
    * Anxiety
    * Stomach and bowel complaints

  7. John D says:

    Dano – Yes, it can be so difficult to focus on breathing when depressed. What you say about fear of your own feelings resonates deeply with me, and for so long that fear – really of letting something free in me – locked me into an airtight room I just couldn’t get out of. Every time you write here you show another hair-raising aspect of living with these demons. You do indeed show incredible courage in facing the fear and speaking from your heart. I’m so glad that has been a source of richness for you.

    All my best – John

  8. John D says:

    Jon Kabat Zinn – Thanks so much for that encouragement. It’s just plain thrilling to hear from one of my long-time heroes. I’ve learned so much for your powerful writing. I’m really honored by your visit.


  9. Good Stuff. Keep writing.

  10. John D says:

    Revellian – Thank you! I’ve only recently started reading your blog, and at first when I saw your posts on depression I could hardly believe it. Your writing is so energetic and full of a bright, joyful commitment to your beliefs – and so fluent! It was hard to match depression with that buoyant personality. But your work with zen and meditation, as you say in this comment, has given you a fit and resilient soul. That’s totally inspiring. I look forward to reading your blog regularly – and thanks for the encouragement!


  11. John D says:

    Merely Me – I will do a follow-up post on how this worked for me. Therapist was interesting, yes, but we didn’t last long together – I’ll explain that too. On meditation, yes it’s hard, but Evan’s advice responding to you gets an essential point. Becoming detached from the anxiousness of doing things right lets you observe that anxiety flashing by. I’m no master at this – I have a long way to go, but what I’ve been able to do so far helps a lot.

    Evan – Thanks – I’ll have to write soon about starting to believe – so cautiously – that I’m really getting better. Your comment to Merely Me about meditation captures the essence so well in so few words. You have a great gift for doing that!


  12. says:

    Hi John! First I want to thank you for coming by my blog – it’s great to meet a fellow human with similar problems to mine.

    I’ve been practicing breathing exercising for around 28 years – basic yoga or Zen breathing, it’s all the same. I’ve done it so long, that it’s become so ingrained in me, I am aware of nearly every breath I take. I must say, it is the reason I am still sane. My depression is far less serious than ever. I still suffer, but not as often. I feel better more quickly and have learned to let go of many past problems.

    Depression obviously makes one much more introspective and strangely more artistic in for example, writing. On the positive side, depression has made me a better person believe it or not.

    I often think some people would be depressed if only they truly knew themselves…LOL! In some respects, I am thankful for suffering depression as it has led me down a unique and very creative path. You are a really great writer and I will be reading your blog. Please keep writing and expressing!!!

  13. Merely Me says:

    wow…your therapist sounds so fascinating! i am still not sure about mine. I started up therapy several months ago.

    Meditation…I dunno…everytime I try it I seem more aware of how I am not doing it right. To quiet my mind is like trying to stop a runaway train.

    I will look forward to reading your post about…if this helps or not.

    Oh and thanks so much for commenting on my Health Central posts. I am most appreciative.

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