Learning the skills of mindful attention can put you on a slow but steady track of healing. Medication and cognitive therapy try to put you on the fast track, but the effects don’t always last. Though it may take a while to instill mindfulness in everyday life, once established it’s with you for the long haul.
The placebo response shows that the mind can have dramatic effects in healing. Its long reach through the nervous system to the whole body can slow or shut down many illnesses, including depression.
The trigger for the placebo effect is a medication or a procedure, something that you knowingly take into the body or have done to you. It’s a make-believe medical package that has to be hand-delivered. Mindfulness makes it possible to turn on this healing power consciously from within.
Mindfulness, meditation, awareness, wholeness – these ideas can seem too spiritual or metaphysical to bring down to earth and into the ordinary moments of living, but I’ve come to think of them in terms of one key skill.
It’s the ability to redirect the full attention of your mind, to focus on yourself as you are, not as the sliver that depression cuts out of you.
With the help of therapists, a lot of reading and my own stumbling attempts, I’ve learned to adapt mindfulness and meditation to my own needs. I’ve relied on a stripped down version of meditation practice, but it’s been a major force in keeping me on track.
Here are some of the basic ideas and methods I’ve found most useful.
A starting place is to pay more attention to how you look at the world and yourself right now. Even without the influence of depression, it’s easy to see things in a one dimensional way. Mostly, I think we consider the usefulness of things to meet particular needs.
The need can be to get a certain kind of work done, or it can mean helping you relax and feel good. If you try something that doesn’t have the desired effect, you toss it aside and look for one that will do what you want.
We categorize and label things so that we’re comfortable that they have a place in the world. Then we don’t have to focus on them very much.
This attitude narrows the view to what you can see through the tiny window of your need. You see what you want a thing or a person to be, not what they are in themselves.
When I’m depressed, I see myself in the same way. What am I good for? The answer is always, not much. Everything about me slows to a crawl, and I can only see myself and everything else through a very dark filter.
To get around this habit of response to the world, you need to refocus your attention.
One of the beginner’s methods of learning how to do this is to feel your breathing.
You don’t have to do anything special. You don’t need to change how you’re breathing, you don’t even have to count breaths. Just pay attention to the feel of the breath, to the in-and-out rhythm in your chest, the flow of air through the nostrils.
If you prefer, you can choose any object to examine closely. You might watch the intricate movements of birds or listen to their calls. You could look at the lamp on your desk or try to identify each sound you can hear. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Full Catastrophe Living, uses the example of a raisin as an object of close study through its appearance, the feel of its surface, the taste in your mouth.
The point is to focus your mind on that one thing. It takes some time, but you stop noticing the time. You get relaxed without trying to be relaxed. You’re fully engaged and aware. If your attention wanders, you just note it without judging yourself and pull your mind back.
It’s simple but calming and restorative. Over time, stopping and refocusing becomes a habit. It’s meditating by not meditating, as Pema Chodron says. Instead of trying to “get it” by following a rigid structure or text, you feel, see, listen with complete attention.
You’re learning how to consciously shift the direction of your mind.
Daniel Siegel points out in Mindsight that focusing attention is a biological process. Neuroplasticity is turned on by attention itself. New neuron connections are formed in areas of the brain you’re re-activating. It’s one of the healing effects of focusing more intently on undoing the effects of depression.
The input from your senses is also important, but unless you direct your attention to what the senses bring, your brain won’t do much with that information.
This integration of mind and neurobiology is a powerful healing force. The changes in your ability to control attention translate into changes in the reaction of brain and nervous system to the totality of your experience. You’re getting back in touch with yourself and what your body and feelings are telling you at a very deep level.
Mindfulness and a greater sense of self-mastery in thinking and feeling are not the whole story. To heal fully, you also have to put them into action by changing behavior and the way you live depression day by day.
Learning how to act mindfully and change behavior starts by looking straight at the things that provoke the most fear and hurt – the situations you always avoid because they’re so unbearable. There are plenty of those in the midst of depression.
Avoiding them, however, doesn’t change anything. It only confirms your belief that you can’t handle them.
One of the most powerful programs I’ve ever seen on TV is the series called Obsessed. In each episode, people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder break the self-defeating patterns of their illness by exposing themselves to the situations that trigger their worst fears.
With the careful help of a therapist, people in such extreme states of fear can learn to look more objectively at what they’re afraid of.
With a more distanced view of their fears and how they think about them, they can move step by step to face the situations that trigger anxiety and panic.
The remarkable thing is to see how completely they can shed all the defenses they’ve constructed to avoid their worst fears. Learning they can live through the worst gives them a freedom to be who they are.
The same method of exposure has been effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can work in depression as a way to move from learning to control attention to learning how to change behavior.
As it’s put in The Mindful Way through Depression: The ability to focus your attention and hold something in awareness is already an affirmation that you have started to face it and work with it. Perhaps without knowing it, you have prepared yourself to change how you live.
Healing – A Teenager’s Story
Daniel Siegel tells the story of one patient, a teenager named Jonathon, who slowly learned how free himself from the total helplessness that he felt when deeply depressed. It was a feeling that had often focused him on suicide.
He envisioned the helplessness as a boat on the water. Usually, he would be in the boat, feeling that he could do nothing to get better, that there was no point to living. But this time, he said, he was somewhere else observing the boat.
When he looked straight at it, the helplessness was simply a thing floating there. And it disappeared. Gone.
That’s the sort of healing that I’ve felt too. You may not notice any change, but when you look for the familiar misery of depression, there’s nothing there anymore. Or if there are still symptoms, they no longer add up to the overwhelming force they had once been.
Meditation can be the starter to get the mind, at whatever combination of conscious and unconscious levels it works on, to shift your awareness to the point where depression no longer dominates.