There is no cure for depression. At least not one that works for everyone. Medication works a bit, and exercise helps a ton. But none of these things–even lots of meditation–won’t get you all the way.
However, in my experience, there are cures (note the plural): complex, sometimes time-consuming combinations of factors that can work together and give you relief.
Here’s my depression success story and the particular combination of coping mechanisms that work best for me.
Once upon a time, I was four years old. And even then, I was the serious girl. Nothing wrong with that–my mom called me “sensitive” and my dad said I had a “cute, worried expression.” But right before their eyes, and without any of us knowing it, I started, slowly, to withdraw. In the second grade my best friend moved away, and I had very few others as backups. I became shyer and shyer till, caught in the coming-of-age pre-junior high school years (fifth and sixth grades), I was really suffering. I hated how I looked. I had no close friends. At recess I hid in the bathroom or under the schoolyard stairs. I didn’t want anyone to see me sitting alone, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone and face rejection.
In Junior High School, I realized I had a problem. It wasn’t their fault that I was shy; it was mine. I went to a new school, made the same mistakes, and the outcome was the same, too. In the eighth grade, I hid in the bathroom every day, and though I made a few friends, they weren’t close. One day I read an article in my aspirational reading of choice–Seventeen magazine–about a girl who realized she had depression. She said that she figured it out after while riding a city bus, she burst into tears for no reason.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. I do that all the time. It sounds pretty normal to me.
But the thought sunk in, and soon after that, I realized I was depressed, too.
My first attempt at overcoming depression was a spiritual one. As a fundamentalist Christian, I knew the answer to all pain, all difficulties was faith. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel better until I got on the right path, and stayed there. If I only prayed enough, read the Bible enough–really committed to God–I would feel the love and job of knowing him. And the depression would be gone.
The plan didn’t succeed.
High school passed in perfectionistic frustration. Then college, then a few lovely years after graduation. My determined mindset helped me get rid of my shyness completely, and pursue a few other goals successfully. I got a job I love–waitressing–as well as a college degree and a house. And I started liking myself a lot more–even how I looked. I gained confidence, but my ultimate goal still eluded me–that of fully overcoming depression.
I still haven’t fully overcome it.
And yet, I have overcome a lot of it. Most of it, in fact. And I did it in two major ways. First, I dealt with the basics: I got a job, independence, a few friendships, a place to live. After that, I started refining my methods.
Here is my daily recipe for my mostly happy, sometimes joyful, and always deeply grateful state of mind.
I exercise most days for at least forty minutes. Sometimes, I exaggerate. Like the other week when I told my friend exercise is a cure for depression. It’s not. And yet, it sort of is. Because without my long walks, I’m not sure I’d be able to stay mentally healthy. For me, this is the absolute number one technique I recommend to overcome depression–even more so than spiritual practice. My personal habit is to take long walks with my kids. I often carry the baby and push the two-year-old on the stroller while my five-year old follows on his bicycle.
I get outside for at least an hour most days. Rain or shine, outside time is a must. I feel better almost as soon as I step out onto the porch. I take the kids to the park or we walk to the store or to a play area. In fact, I almost never drive a car, even though I have one.
I meditate briefly each day and pursue other spiritual practices. My meditation practice consists of repeating a loving mantra several times for several minutes, or just allowing myself to sit still and notice the thoughts that come, then refocus on my “inner body”–the sensations I feel in my hands and feet and breath. I also try to consult my inner guidance on a daily, sometimes hour by hour basis as I consider what to do next, or what decision to make. This helps me greatly. Finally, when a thought comes that is particularly stressful, I journal it, Byron Katie-style. For more information on all of my spiritual practices, see my Spiritual Practice Success Stories and Depression Success Stories on mollieplayer.com.)
I limit my junk food intake. Healthy food tastes good, too. It really does. I don’t limit fat and I focus on protein and vegetables. (I allow myself a few treats, too.)
I have hobbies I truly love: reading, writing, and gardening. The value of having at least one endless project cannot be overstated. I love feeling productive, and all three of these hobbies feels valuable and fun. I get the pleasure of the activity itself, plus the knowledge that I’m doing something worthwhile. If you don’t have a job, at least get a difficult, long-term, highly involved hobby.
I keep my house clean. For me, cleaning is relaxing. It gives me a sense of control and order. I love home organization, too.
I only wear clothes that feel good on my body and that I feel I look good in. This is huge, and took me a long time to learn. I hardly ever wear those “cute” clothes that other people say look good on me. I wear a uniform every day: black pants, a crisp T-shirt and maybe a sweater.
I keep my weight down. For me, feeling bloated causes anxiety. Though I don’t necessarily think extra weight looks bad on other people, I choose to do what it takes to keep my weight down (i.e. diet). For me, the tradeoff is worth it.
I take medication. Does it work? Yeah, a little. This is especially important and helpful in the winter.
I work hard. I stay busy. Staying busy is huge. Huge! The days fly by, and in the evening you can look forward to a TV show or a good book knowing that you did your work for the day already.
I do work I love, namely, writing and being a mom. For people with depression, work enjoyment is even more important than for others. I don’t make a ton of money, but I wouldn’t trade my work lifestyle for anything.
I spend time with good friends several time per week. Ah, friendship. This is a hard one for me. I’m a busy mom, after all. But I fold my friendship time into my mom time with lots of play dates, and once a month we have family friends over for dinner. Such an uplifting experience.
I don’t overschedule my days. I try to take things at my own pace, and the pace of good parenting. If you are prone to anger or anxiety, overscheduling is a huge problem. Though I love to keep busy, I choose projects that I can do at my own pace and on my own schedule. I only schedule one outing per day with the kids, and I make it a life rule to rarely leave the house in the evening. (Family time!)
I try not to yell at anyone. Conflict is such an emotional drain. Most of my relationship difficulties are handled in a calm, low-key manner. I just hate being in a fight.
I prioritize sleep. I don’t have a TV or computer addiction. In fact, addictions of all kinds scare me. I watch TV a few times a week, and go to bed at the same time my kids do. For alone time, I get a babysitter three times per week.
I try to do all the little “shoulds” we all have for ourselves, while also trying not to do too much. It is a balance. Such a tricky, precarious balance. But I’ve found that for me, there’s no way around it.
So, the list is long, I know. Maybe even a bit intimidating. Depression is such a huge, demanding thing.
There are no easy answers. But there are answers. And hey–that’s better than nothing.
Besides, all this self-improvement stuff? It doesn’t just keep my depression at bay. It makes me a better person, too. Most of it is stuff even someone who doesn’t have depression would benefit from. The main difference is that I feel I have no choice. Drop the ball on any two of these, and rough days are ahead. It’s not a self-pity thing; it’s just true.
I do remain hopeful that one day, my depression will be healed entirely. It happened to my dad and many others. Either way, I (mostly) accept myself right where I’m at. This is my life, and it’s a good one.
The first time I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I thought it was total crap. Okay, maybe “total crap” is an exaggeration. But definitely impossible, impractical and, worst of all, unpleasant. Not thinking about the future? Just paying attention to the Now? Sounds like the fast track to loserhood.
As a person struggling with depression and using any non-substance-based strategy I could think of to manage it, the advice sounded particularly terrible. I could do without past obsession pretty well–never’ve been much of a grudge-holder. But I needed–depended on–obsessing about my future. The future is when I would have everything I wanted: kids, a house, a great career. My plans for things to come and my determination to work hard towards them were pretty much what I lived for.
Stop thinking about the future? Stop thinking at all? Won’t that take away my hope, my reason for living?
The second time I read The Power of Now, I understood the concept a bit better. Oh, I don’t have to stop thinking entirely. I can think without being neurotic, and with long breaks. That actually sounds pretty cool.
Maybe I’ll try that someday. First, I have stuff to get done.
The third time I read The Power of Now, I finally had a breakthrough. The book taught me how to meditate, and how to absolutely love meditating. And now, it’s one of my very favorite books.
That’s another story, though. For today, we focus on this whole fascinating not-thinking thing, particularly whether or not it can help with depression.
Some people call it no-mind meditation, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever cursed Eckhart Tolle or another teacher for telling her to try it. Being completely “present,” without plans or goals, as Tolle calls it, doesn’t come naturally to us human-types. In fact, it goes against pretty much our entire biology.
We think. We assess. We assume. We make decisions. Sometimes all in less than a single second. It’s one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. But apparently, we can learn to overcome it.
But do we want to? And if so, how much thinking is the right amount, especially when you’re trying to overcome depression?
There’s no one right answer, but here’s my experience.
Achieving or attempting to achieve the so-called “no-mind” state helps us greatly. It makes us happier. It definitely eliminates depression. The problem: oh my goodness, it takes a lot of time. Unless you’re committed to Buddhist-like meditation sessions on a daily basis, your results may be very slow to come.
I love meditation. I definitely like to take breaks from thought, and when I have obsessive or anxious mind patterns, I realize it’s time to chill a bit. I clear my head by repeating a calming mantra, doing The Work or doing a “brain dump” on paper, and these techniques usually work pretty well.
But soon after that, I’m back to thinking.
And I’m okay with that.
Don’t get me wrong: on a bad day, I could use a lot more of this no-mind stuff. But on a good day, a lot of my thinking isn’t so terrible. It’s not the anxiety-producing stuff we all know is unhealthy. It’s just thinking–just plain old planning, reading, writing and working. Sometimes I even manage pleasant, pointless pondering. Today, for instance, I found myself lost in contemplation about the economics of private dentistry practice. Important? Not really. Interesting? Just a bit. Stressful? Well, not to me. On a good day, a lot of my thinking is like that. It’s not particularly harmful, or particularly anything.
It’s just thinking.
Of course, I also do the did-I-say-something-wrong what-does-she-think-of-me-now type stuff. But when I catch it, I’m often able to refocus pretty well.
One fine day, I’d love to experience the state of no-thought Tolle talks about. But I don’t plan to meditate for thirty years to get there.
Final thought: I’ve read all of Tolle’s books, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. But I’ve also listened to the audio recordings of many of his conferences, and I can’t say the same. At the beginning of each, he makes a statement to the effect of, “I didn’t plan what I’m going to say today at all.” Yeah, Tolle, I get it; you’re inspired, “in the flow.” The words don’t matter as much as the spiritual energy you impart. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean thinking and planning is useless. Your conference speeches could do with a tad more forethought. (But you’re wonderful anyway, and thank you, thank you, thank you.)
I love advice. Love getting it. Love giving it. But there’s a problem with advice: We often don’t take it. And usually, it isn’t because we don’t want to, or don’t intend to. Usually, it’s because we forget.
Think about it: How many times have you read a parenting book or a marriage book, then followed its suggestions to the letter—for about a week? After that, our resolve blurs. We focus on other things, and our best intentions move into our peripheral vision, or even into the background.
Which is where my resolution solution comes in.
Often, when there’s something about my life I’d like to change, I first write down all of my related goals. The process of writing and thinking them through clarifies my intentions and makes my lessons more concrete and practical. It also stores them in my subconscious.
Nothing revolutionary so far. Here comes the real trick: I set the list of resolutions aside. A list that long does me no good; there’s no way I’m going to reread them every day. I put them in a place easily remembered and located later, when I’m struggling to carry them out—in my case, in a special file on my computer. Then I distill down the resolutions into a few concrete actions—just one or two. And I add them to my Monthly Checklist. I give myself an X every time I complete one of the actions, and by month’s end, I can see and appreciate my progress.
My Monthly Checklist isn’t your ordinary checklist. It’s an ongoing to-do list, one that incorporates all–and I do mean all–of my personal and professional goals, including writing, parenting, educational, marriage, exercise, spiritual, friendship goals and more. (Yeah—my checklist is really, really long.)
So maybe it’s corny. But it works; I swear it does. The checklist keeps me accountable, and reminds me of what I am working towards.
My goals don’t live in the back of my mind somewhere anymore. They live with me, and I interact with them several times each week.
Here is a partial example of my list. This one is from December of last year:
One day of meditation: 30x –
One glass of water drank: 30x –
One exercise session: 20x –
One reading time with kids: 10x –
One family chore time: 4x –
One TV show or total break time: 4x –
One random act of kindness: 4x –
One podcast or audiobook for kids: 2x –
One hour of educational music for kids: 2x –
One dinner with friends: 1x –
One family meeting: 1x –
My Monthly Checklist is my secret weapon. Seriously.
The other week at my (awesome) Unitarian church, a woman I met during greeting time said this: “You have three kids? So you pretty much deserve the hero award just for waking up.”
It was sweet. Really sweet. I appreciated the compliment. But I didn’t know how to respond.
I tried this: “No, not at all. It’s not that bad, really.”
She said, “I have two kids, and parenting is the hardest thing I do,” and then my humility in disregarding her praise turned into hubris, right before my eyes. (This happens to me a lot.)
“That isn’t my experience,” I said cautiously. “So far, I like this job the best.” I wanted to say more, but the minister resumed the service.
I would love to talk to her again. And maybe I will. But for now, let me get something off my chest.
Parenting is hard. Super, super hard. Mostly because I don’t have a lot of free time. But here are some other things I don’t have: A set schedule; a time clock; work clothes; spreadsheets; deathly boredom; rush-hour traffic; a commute; meetings; pointless busywork; the feeling that I’m not making a difference; replacibility; burnt coffee; meetings; sitting in the same room every day, all day; office politics; dealing with people every day that disrespect me; customers; deadlines; sales pressure; fake smiles; the need to pretend to be busy; carpel tunnel; lack of creativity; lack of autonomy; lack of passion; hours and hours of socialization while on the clock; Sunday evening dread. And finally:
So let’s take a moment to appreciate the bus drivers, office workers, clerks, managers and salespeople of the world. Especially that garbage man that always waves to my kids.
Just before he turned five, my son wrote a story. And it was the saddest thing ever. As he finished it and I was scribbling it down, all I could think was, “Oh, my goodness. What is this kid picking up from me?” Here is that story:
“The first thing that happens is there’s alive vacuums and they bang and crush until they’re dead in heaven and then they knew to be not alive vacuums that are really alive vacuums. The end. (They just pretend that they’re not alive by closing their eyes and popping their arms in them.)”
“Oh, and put the title on it,” he reminded me.
“Okay. What’s the title?”
“Alive Vacuums Hurt.”
Wow, I thought. Alive vacuums hurt. Am I alive? Or am I pretending not to hurt, too?
During childhood, I was definitely alive. I cried all the time. These days, though, not so much. It’s a rare thing for me to cry even a little. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Which is probably why I loved the book Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle so much: it gave me an outlet for emotion. It’s about blogger Doyle’s marital difficulties as well as how she overcame addiction. But Doyle doesn’t just tell her story. She emotes it. She gives us the raw, even gory, details, scene by painful scene, till your own personal sadness surfaces to keep hers company.
I felt a lot of things while reading Doyle’s book. But mostly I felt inspired to feel more.
I don’t want to be an alive vacuum pretending to be a dead vacuum. I don’t want to be afraid of my feelings.
Here are a few passages from the book that were especially helpful to me:
“My mom’s voice quivers as she and my dad ask the usual questions: Why do you keep doing this to us? Why do you keep lying? Do you even love us? I sit on the couch and I try to receive their questions, but I’m a catcher without a mitt. My face is neutral, but the part of my heart that’s not spoiled is aching. I do love them. I love them and I love my sister and I love my friends. I think I love my people more than normal people love their people. My love is so overwhelming and terrifying and uncomfortable and complicated that I need to hide from it. Life and love simply ask too much of me. Everything hurts. I don’t know how people can just let it all hurt so much. I am just not up for all this hurting.”
“I sit and stare at my hands and I remember a story I saw on the news about a woman who had a stroke and lost all her language overnight. When she woke up, her mind functioned perfectly, but she couldn’t speak. So she just lay there and tried to use her eyes to communicate her terror about being trapped inside herself. Her family couldn’t translate what her eyes were saying. They thought she was brain-dead. It’s like that for me, too. I’m in here. I am good on the inside. I have things to say. I need help getting out. I do love you. My secret is that I’m good in here. I am not heart-dead. This is a secret that no one knows but me.”
“We begin to understand that to coparent is to one day look up and notice that you are on a roller coaster with another human being. You are in the same car, strapped down side by side and you can never, ever get off. There will never be another moment in your lives when your hearts don’t rise and fall together, when your minds don’t race and panic together, when your stomachs don’t churn in tandem, when you stop seeing huge hills emerge in the distance and simultaneously grab the side of the car and hold on tight. No one except for the one strapped down beside you will ever understand the particular thrills and terrors of your ride.”
“As we walk out into the sun, Craig says, ‘Is it going to be okay? He’s going to be okay, right?’ I look at him and understand that when your coaster partner gets scared you must quickly hide your own fear. You can’t panic at the same time. You must take turns. I grab Craig’s arm, hold tight, and say, ‘Yes. Absolutely. It’s all going to be okay. He is going to be amazing. This is just part of our ride.’”
“I tell them that I’m finally proud of who I am. I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often—because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide. If we choose to be perfect and admired, we must send our representatives out to live our lives. If we choose to be real and loved, we must send out our true, tender selves.”
“I’d been angry and ashamed because my marriage was so far from perfect. But perfect just means: works exactly the way it is designed to work. If marriage is an institution designed to nurture the growth of two people—then, in our own broken way, our marriage is perfect.”
This is my first winter with three children, and here is what I’ve learned about the mathematics of coats.
To find the total square footage of your home that you will need to devote solely to winter wear, use the following equation.
For each child in the family, add two lightweight jackets or sweatshirts, one point five heavy coats, one snowsuit, one rain suit, plus gloves, boots and hats.
For each adult in the family, add five to ten lightweight jackets or sweatshirts, one fancy coat, one rain jacket, one heavy coat, plus gloves, boots and hats.
For each adult bicyclist, motorcyclist, skier, scuba diver or other athletic type, add one pair of specialty pants and one point five specialty coat per sport. Because the volume of each of these items is almost double the average volume of other items, multiply this number by two.
Thus, if your family has five members (as mine does), you will need approximately eight thousand items of winter wear in your collective wardrobe.
After determining the total number of items, measure the square footage needed per item. This will vary depending on how much space between items you require to access them. Now multiply this number by your number of items.
If you did the math right, you will likely come up with a figure that will make it necessary to buy a second home. Or at least a Pod.
Seriously, though. Our coats take up two entire closets right now. And my kids are still tiny.
Summer, please come back soon.
(I’m off to buy a Pod.)
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1. Men don’t freak out over criticism. The other week, my babysitter quit. She said our parenting style was too “laid back.” (She was being nice, of course. She could’ve said my kids are brats.) After I read the email, I consulted with two friends at length, seeking ways to validate my choices and to work through my embarrassment. My husband, on the other hand? He read the email, made a single statement (which I won’t repeat here), then placed it all in a file and red-stamped it. Case closed.
2. Men are willing to take a backseat. My husband’s greatest joy in life is his mostly happy, mostly loving family. The role he chooses to play in keeping it that way is to support my parenting decisions as well as my self-care. He helps in any way he can, and doesn’t micromanage. Most of all, he realizes that the one who makes the plans is the one who gets to decide how to carry them out. (For more on gender differences in family decision making, see Tara Parker Pope’s discussion of household management in For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed.)
3. Men deeply appreciate real women’s bodies. Men love fat women, thin women, tall women, short women, beautiful women, plain women, dressed-up women, casual women, Barbie women, Martha Stewart women, soft women, angular women, curvy women and everything in between. Their tastes are much more wide-ranging and forgiving than the women they love often realize. (For evidence, see A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships by Ogi Ogas.)
4. Men are Zen. I once saw a video recording of a spiritual conference in which the audience was mostly made up of women. During the question and answer session, one of them asked the speaker if women are more spiritually evolved than men are; after all, they’re the ones who come to these events the most. The teacher responded that there may have been good reason that more men weren’t there. “Maybe they don’t need to read as many books and go to as many conferences, since they’re already practicing these principles without realizing it.”
I, for one, think she was right. If Zen is define as living in the moment, appreciating the little things and not obsessing over the bad, men as a whole are way more Zen than women are.
5. Men are great conversationalists. I love girl talk. Mom talk, especially. But I also can’t live without a weekly debate regarding philosophy, news and/or politics. And for that, my dad, husband and other male friends are my go-tos. With them, it’s not personal. I can be as opinionated as I want to be. Friendly debates really feel … friendly. (I have had a few girlfriends who don’t mind the inevitable disagreements that come up, but not many.)
6. Men are honest. I like the emotional support I get from my girlfriends, but every once in a while, if I’m full of shit, it’s better just to be told straight up. One of the greatest compliments I’ve even received–maybe the very greatest–came from my husband, who said, “You have the best personality of anyone I know.” If this had come from a girlfriend, I would’ve deeply appreciated their kindness. But since it came from a person who as far as I know has never, ever lied to me–even a so-called ‘white lie’–I will treasure it forever. (I’d give you a few great examples of his brutal honesty, but that probably isn’t necessary. Just trust me.)
7. Men communicate clearly. Here’s a typical scenario: my husband and I in our living room, cleaning up after our dinner guests. “Did you catch that comment?” I say. “The one about the laundry?”
“Maris was hinting that Niles didn’t appreciate her. You didn’t see it? Oh, I love you, Hon. You’re so great.”
When I tell my husband, “I’m stressed out. I need a break,” he gets it. When I say, “Will you do the laundry?”, he says yes or no. However, when I say, “I hate everything right now,” he has no idea what that means, or what to do. This is a major advantage in our relationship. David teaches me how to be direct. (I’m not all the way there yet, though. Only been with him for eight years. These things take time.)
8. Men appreciate the beauty of silence. When I was in high school, my dad opened a window into male psychology for me–a small one, but it let in a surprising amount of light. He said, “The person you can sit with, and say nothing, but still understand each other–that’s the person you want to marry.”
But I love talking, I thought. I want to marry a great conversationalist. Later, though, I understood what he meant. Men love talking sometimes, too. But what they truly need is respectful, peaceful, loving, companionable … quiet.
Like I said: a window.
9. Men are sexy. Enough said.
10. Men are smart. Obviously, women are every bit as talented and intelligent as men are. But it’s been a while since I’ve heard someone say, “Men have done so much good in the world, haven’t they?” A similar comment about women comes my way every three hours or so. So let’s all take a moment to acknowledge the many achievements of male-kind, even if you don’t appreciate every single one of them. (Personally, I’m not a huge fan of cars. But the birth control pill and sidewalks? Two thumbs up.)
BONUS #1: Men are funny first, serious as needed. My husband plays with my children differently. And his discipline style is often more lighthearted than mine. A common caution of his is, “It seems like you need tickles. Do you need tickles?” It’s beautiful. Humor is one of the most helpful conflict management strategies I know.
BONUS #2: Finally, when people use the term “white men” or just “men” in a negative context, men don’t usually complain. Often, they even welcome it. Some even consider themselves feminists. They like us women that much.
Much, much love to the men in my life who have debated with me for hours, told me the unvarnished truth, and shown me how neurotic I (occasionally) am.
P.S. Happy birthday to my amazing older son, who turns five very soon. Could not be prouder.
P.P.S. Kudos to Philadelphia for celebrating International Men’s Day today.
So, it occurred to me today that I have no idea what Jesus would do. Ever. This may be due to a lack of information or just my inability to synthesize the available information. However, after reading just a couple of books on monks of various times, places and faith persuasions (The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton and Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda both leap to mind), I have a decent feel for what they would do in most sticky situations. (Hint: It usually involves a wan smile and a non-committal retort such as “Is that so?”)
And so, I’m going to have my own bumper sticker made. It’s going to say “What Would a Buddhist Monk Do?”
I was pregnant. I was exhausted. I was potty training two kids. So it would’ve been easy to chalk it up to stress. But when earlier this year I discovered how negative my thinking had become, I didn’t dismiss it. I became genuinely concerned.
I made the discovery when one difficult evening, for the first time in ages, I picked up a pen and journaled my true feelings. Not my affirmations. Not my goals. Not my prayers. Just my ugliest, most despicable feelings.
In the end, I had four handwritten pages covered solidly back and front with nothing but the crazy in my brain. When I showed my husband, he said, “Wow. That’s a lot of bad thoughts.”
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
A few hours later, I was sitting in my office, scanning my memory for a solution. At one point I idly glanced over a bookshelf I don’t usually pay attention to, and there it was: The Feeling Good Handbook.
Reluctantly, I took it from the shelf.
A book my doctor had recommended a year or so prior, the Handbook didn’t hold much interest for me at the time. I remembered flipping through its many detailed descriptions of medications and skimming some of its seemingly pat advice. This time when I opened it, though, I found something else.
I found a different book entirely.
The Feeling Good Handbook is written by psychiatrist David Burns, and it’s about a well-known, widely used form of psychotherapy called (unfortunately, I think) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for short). The book is far too long—full of flowery ideas and applications. What is comes down to, however, is this: negative thoughts are not the truth. They’re a perspective, and often pretty screwy one—one with only a bit of basis in reality, if any at all. The best way to work through them—to eradicate them, and in doing so, eradicate depression—is to write them down, then write down their opposite: the more objective (and yes, more optimistic) view of the matter.
I know, I know. Big damn deal, right? Isn’t this just positive thinking with a fancy name? But sometimes, that’s what it takes. Sometimes the fancy name or the scientific research backing a technique gives you the faith you need to give it a go. And then there was the timing thing; at this reading, I was more willing than before to try something new.
Later that day, I wrote out my negative thoughts again, but this time I countered them with more positive interpretations of the situations. To my great surprise, after doing so, I felt better. Much better. Even … well, good. I felt the way I normally feel after a brisk four-mile jog or walk—and the feeling stayed with me for much longer.
A week later, after journaling two or three more times, my acute depression still hadn’t returned. And that’s when I really knew I was on to something.
We spiritual people can all say all day long that we’re want to learn to accept everything, even pain. The truth is, though, that often, we don’t have to. We can work through it instead. Change what you can change, and accept the rest. And, of course, learn the difference.
Here are some of the results I recorded in my journal during my first week of CBT:
One of my least favorite things in the world is the sound of a child whining. But at one point as I was waiting out yet another of these patience-trying incidents, I started saying to myself, “This is the good stuff.” I did a mini version of CBT, and it worked; I felt calmer. Later, I had a conversation with that same child after he complained (ironically) about his brother’s loud voice. “In life, there are things that we like, things that we don’t like and have to wait through, and things we don’t like but get to figure out a solution for, and all three are good in different ways. Life is a fun challenge. The hard stuff is the good stuff.”
When a friend called to describe at length a difficult problem that I felt she’d brought upon herself, I got angry. Not on the phone (I was merely impatient), but after hanging up. A rush of anxiety came over me as I thought about her unfortunate situation, but instead of ignoring it, I thought it through. I identified the stressful thought that the whole thing was her fault, which helped me see how ridiculous it was, and later I noticed thoughts of love for her coming to me spontaneously.
Finally, I did CBT on a long-held misbelief of mine, namely that I’m not productive enough. Then that night when my husband took the kids out for four hours, I binged on stand-up comedy specials. The next day when I woke up I thought, I want to write today. And that’s what I did off and on all day, in spite of the usual challenges. The rest had helped.
“I envision stacks and stacks of papers listing all my negative thoughts,” I wrote the following week. “These stacks will be the dumpster—no, the landfill—for all of the crap inside my head. It’ll be great.”
CBT isn’t easy. It’s tedious and time-consuming. But it’s a fun challenge, too. One of the best compliments you can give any self-improvement technique is that it’s as good as they say it is. I believe that compliment applies here.
Every once in a while, I want to set fire to my brain. I want to light a match, and get a bucket of kerosene, and just go to town on it. The desire usually comes when my brain is on fire already, and it’s getting out of control. I figure that if I hasten the job, the whole thing will be over more quickly, and afterwards I can cool it off and start rebuilding.
Yeah, that’s the answer. More fire.
Allow me to explain.
A few months back, I was going through a rough time. So, I decided to try something a little different. I was sick of practicing acceptance, saying “love, love, love” and meditating all the time. I needed, instead, to vent.
The situation: bad behavior boot camp.
Have you ever tried this? Well, don’t. Or do. I don’t know yet. Results unclear. Regardless, it’s when you take your two whiny children and make them stay at home all day and fight with each other. Then you take every single one of those fights as a “learning opportunity,” complete with one-on-one conflict resolution coaching, the patience of a goddess and, of course, appropriate consequences.
You can guess how well this went. The good news? It inspired a new spiritual practice. I call it my “I hate this” meditation and that pretty much sums it up.
So maybe I’m the only person in the world to find this as helpful as I do. But on the off-chance that my experience can be replicated, here is a brief description of what I’ve been up to.
One of my favorite spiritual books is Loving What Arises, about, well, loving everything as a spiritual practice. Matt Kahn is the author. He’s a channel, though he doesn’t use that term, preferring the word “empath.” Basically, he holds lectures on the topics of love and spirituality, mostly love, and how to bring everything in our experience back to that.
So one day in the midst of this bad-behavior stuff, while attempting to do what Kahn suggests, I realized something: I didn’t want to love this. It felt fake. So, I tried something else instead. And it worked. So I tried it every day that week.
It still worked.
Here is the technique: You get alone, in a quiet spot, and start by saying the phrase “I hate.” Then you just let it rip.
I hate my outfit. I hate my hair. I hate the gym. I hate that person. I hate the morning.
You go on and on like this, getting it out, letting it go. Then you take a deep breath, and meditate a while.
This sucks so much, I think. But damn, am I growing. You know, as a person.
And then I call it a day.
Then, about half the time, I get this feeling of gratitude. Something like, Wow. I’m okay. I’m doing it. I’m getting through it. How much awesomer am I going to be at life (in this case, parenting) after I get through this?
I feel truly grateful for my crap.
And then there’s something else that happens, also about half the time: A bit of positive thinking accidentally creeps in. It’s weird, really: there I am, trying my damndest to be negative, and my ego part—the part of all of us that makes reverse psychology so effective—starts arguing with my silly list. “I hate the gym,” I’ll say in all sincerity. And everything I appreciate about the gym—the childcare, the alone time, the dress code—will come to mind. Then I list the next thing—say, giving up dessert—and Reverse Me will do it again. “You don’t care about that. You love the food you eat. And you look really good, too.”
Then I argue that point a bit.
Ah, that ego. Always arguing. Mostly, it’s best to just ignore it. But every once in a while, we can outwit it instead.
Reverse psychology. It works.
So, in sum: I’m saying “I hate” over and over—and calling it a wellness practice. Take that, lame, phony life rules.
Admittedly, my results with this technique are pretty mixed so far. Sometimes it helps a lot, but about half of the time it offers little to no real relief. It’s one of those things: you have to sort of search your soul a bit, ask yourself if you just need a few moments to vent. If the answer is yes, the practice could help. It gets everything out there—a brain dump. Then you can pick through the garbage for what you want to keep. The rest goes and doesn’t seem to come back. At least not right away.
Admitting, truly admitting, what I hate—no rose colors involved—is something I’ve deprived myself of in the past. Allowing myself to admit I hate what is, that I don’t effing want to be spiritual right now—it feels like eating ice cream for the first time after years without sugar.
I love that honesty can work for depression, at least sometimes. I don’t want to have to be positive all the time. What a drag.
Something different for you today: a poem I wrote during my first year of being a mom.
We expect our children to share everything they own. But do we share everything we own?
We expect our children to enjoy sleeping alone. But do we enjoy sleeping alone?
We expect our children to realize they’ll be okay immediately after falling down. But do we realize we’ll be okay immediately after we fall down?
We expect our children to let other people decide what they will wear, what they will eat and where they will go. We expect them to always eat their vegetables and to go to school for eight hours a day. We expect them to sit still, play quietly, contain their excitement and never, ever show they’re mad. But are these things always such a good idea?
We parents don’t always go to bed on time. We don’t always manage our money wisely. We often argue, or even refuse to work out our disagreements at all.
We don’t always keep our rooms clean, stick with our first decision or get ready on time. We don’t always do the math right.
We don’t always follow the rules.
We expect our children to behave like adults while so often, we behave like them. Maybe, then, we should expect a little less of our children—and a great deal more of ourselves.
Last fall, I was going through a rough time. Like, really rough. I wasn’t taking walks. I wasn’t eating healthy. I wasn’t hanging out with friends–even writing. The problem? I was pregnant.
And every day, all day long, I was nauseated.
It’s the worst thing, that nausea. I’ve had it four times for over three months straight, and it never gets any more enjoyable. It’s unfortunate, too, for my kids and husband, who want another little one someday. (I think they forgot how bad the bathroom smelled, and how infrequently I cleaned it.)
All right, enough pity. (Thanks, though. It was nice.) The point is, when you’re sick everything sucks. So you can imagine how badly I’d have to want to do something while in this condition in order to actually get dressed, get in the car, go somewhere and do it.
Yeah. Pretty bad indeed.
Well, I did that. I did that for Matt Kahn. And it involved a 40-minute car ride. There was an IV in my arm, and I puked on the street by my friend’s car, and I hated every second, but I went.
To say I’m a fan of Kahn is an understatement. I once offered to ghost write a book of his. (His office person rejected the idea. No hard feelings! Emoticons!) He’s a Seattle local, which gets him a few points, but mostly he just has a great take on spirituality. It’s jovial. It’s fun. It’s super insightful. And it’s just non-friggin-uptight. He’s not a comedy genius or anything–he’s just relatable. Honestly, a pretty normal dude–yet awesome.
And then there’s his message. His message is the thing. It’s unique. It’s a blend. There’s nothing copycat about it. He talks about karma, about the law of attraction, but in a totally different way. A real treatment of his message is far beyond the scope of this piece, but do check out at least one of his super popular YouTube videos. It’s required.
With that, we come to Kahn’s spiritual practice, and my assessment of how well it works for depression–and for just getting more inner peace and stuff in general.
So let’s get to it.
Matt Kahn is a spiritual teacher with second-sight abilities. In his book, Whatever Arises, Love That, which he seems to claim was channeled (though possibly not word-for-word?), he shares how one day a spirit entity or entities revealed to him his greatest teaching (so far) in the form of the four words that are the title of his book:
“Whatever arises, love that.”
Taking the directive literally, he began repeating, “I love you” to whatever got his attention—a flock of birds, a construction worker using a jackhammer. What followed was an awakening, as he calls it, that caused sounds of gunshots in his head and a sense of his Self “oozing out of my ears like warm liquid light.” Sounds like something I want to experience. Maybe.
And that’s it. That’s the practice. So simple. So of course, I had to try it. Here’s what I found.
Does this spiritual practice work against depression?
Yes, but only to a point unless used with great commitment. Just saying a few “I love yous” every day won’t get you out of a bad slump. Though it wouldn’t hurt, either.
Have you tried it? For how long?
I tried the technique for about one month during that pregnancy I was describing. Not the first trimester, of course–spiritual practice? what’s that?–but later when things weren’t so … entirely crappy. I was convinced I’d stick with it for at least a year straight as one of my main practices. However, it was not to be. Soon afterwards, I discovered Byron Katie’s The Work, and loving what arises has been relegated to the Definitely Will Do That Again, Hopefully Soon list in my OneNotes.
What were your results?
My results were great. Thing is, as hirpy-chirpy ridiculous as the technique sounds, in practice it’s very profound. When things are swimming along, feeling good to you, it’s just an extra “thank you” to the Universe, but when things get un-fun, the technique really gets interesting. It’s not about pretending to have feelings of appreciation and love for what you actually hate. For me, anyway, it’s about reminding myself that this–even this–is fine. Not great. Not cool. Not awesome. Not de-lish.
But fine. Really, really fine.
My kids both pooped on the floor? On the same day? It’s fine. It’s really fine. I love you.
I’m feeling depressed but too lazy to go take a walk? It’s fine. It’s really fine. I love you.
My body is forty pounds heavier, and my ears hurt from the sound of whining? It’s fine. It’s really fine. I love you.
Because, here’s the deal, you: You’re what I get when I ask to become a better person. You, Poop. You, Depression. You, Fat. You’re my gifts, my teachers, my best friends.
Even you, Whining. All of you.
So, I love you. For teaching me how to train my kids to clean up after themselves. For bringing me back to spiritual practice after a few days’ absence. For reminding me how lucky I am to have a healthy body. For teaching me patience. For making me stronger.
I love you.
Here are a couple of amazing quotes from the book.
Note that it was really, really hard to choose; there were tons of great ones.
“No matter what seems to trigger you, each reaction represents the releasing of cellular debris collected from lifetimes of experiences.”
“Throughout this process, it is important to remember that a sensation only feels like a barrier for as long as you refuse to feel it. As it is invited to be felt, a willingness to experience each moment as an opportunity to heal clears out layers of cellular memory to make room for the emergence of heart-centered consciousness.”
“Instead of using this practice as a cosmic fire extinguisher to merely resolve the flames of personal despair, I invite you to treasure your heart on a regular basis, until the world you are viewing reflects back the light that your love reveals.”
“While moments of transcendence are incredible to behold, the true benchmark of spiritual maturity is how often your words and actions are aligned with love.”
1. Would I rather have clean carpets but constant carpet maintenance and a strict no-shoes, no dirty feet policy … or would I rather have stains on my carpet and a lot less hassle? (Or is there another solution, like dark brown carpet?)
2. Would I rather have a clean house with constant maintenance … or would I rather have a messy house but be able to let my kids do arts and crafts inside; let kids get head-to-toe dirty outside then track it in; not have to nag about chores all day; get less annoyed by kids being kids; let kids learn how to prepare their own food; let kids learn how to feed themselves; and not to mention spend a lot less time cleaning. (Or is there another solution, like teaching kids to do chores and exchanging chores for privileges?)
3. Would I rather have a nicely manicured lawn that I have to maintain weekly … or would I rather garden and rake when it brings me pleasure and exercise, and have lots of pine cones, leaves and dead grass in my yard, all of which are pretty in their own way? (Or is there another solution, like moss and clover instead of grass?)
4. Would I rather keep all bugs out of my house at all times but have to constantly nag the kids to shut the door … or would I rather leave the door open all day in the summer without a screen so that the kids are encouraged to go outside more often throughout the day? (Or is there another solution, like a screen with a magnetic closure that automatically closes behind you?)
5. Would I rather save time on cooking by going to a restaurant, then spend time driving, parking, ordering, waiting, paying, and driving … or would I rather spend the effort to throw together something at home, then linger after dinner at the table with the family?
6. Would I rather spend $30 extra for a restaurant meal … or spend $20 for an extra hour of housekeeping or nanny time?
7. Would I rather spend $1,000 on French doors for my patio … or use that money to buy 50 hours of household or nanny help?
8. Would I rather spend $3-5,000 on a family vacation to Mexico for a week … or $1,000 on a nice staycation for a week that includes long evenings with kids at the babysitter’s?
9. Would I rather buy and store a gas-powered lawnmower … or would I rather use a small push mower that I rarely need to sharpen and never have to buy gas for, and is much quieter and more pleasant to use and gives me some exercise?
10. Would I rather have a large variety of appliances that make various tasks easier and faster … or would I rather have a smaller kitchen with less cluttered cabinets and save time and hassle finding what I need?
11. Would I rather have a large, expensive house with high heating, cleaning and repair costs … or a house in a prime location with just enough room for the family to live closely and with less stuff?
12. Would I rather have three kids and spend more quality time with each … or would I rather have four kids and bring another life into our family and the world?
13. Would I rather make sure my kids go to several sports, clubs, or classes each week … or would I rather let my kids figure out how to overcome boredom on their own at home?
14. Would I rather clean up the food my kids spill under the table and move on to the next thing more quickly … or would I rather teach them how to clean up after themselves by taking away their food and waiting for them to clean it up before their next meal?
15. Would I rather drive my kids to the library … or would I rather walk them there?
16. Would I rather let my kids have three hours of screen time per day … or would I rather sit with them in the living room while they play and I read a book, not allowing them to interrupt me unnecessarily?
17. Would I rather buy a new fire truck for my child … or give him a box of recycled materials and help him make one?
18. Would I rather pick up all of the toys one by one when I need to clean the floor … or sweep them all into the corner with a push broom?
19. Would I rather spend an hour a week driving to and from a playdate that I don’t particularly enjoy … or would I rather find an activity for my kids that is within walking distance?
20. Would I rather pack the kids up in the car and take them to the park every day … or would I rather sit in the backyard for an hour to encourage them to join me?
21. Would I rather commit to doing a favor that doesn’t feel good to me … or would I rather take the opportunity to practice saying no?
22. Would I rather buy the new furniture that we supposedly need … or would I rather let the kids continue to destroy the old stuff and wait to get new stuff when they’re older?
23. Would I rather leave my cell phone in the bedroom till evening and miss a few messages … or would I rather be tempted to check my messages or to-do list several times per hour during family no-screen time?
24. Would I rather prepare all my kids’ food every day and prevent messes and wasted food … or would I rather teach them how to open the fridge, get a cup, pour the milk and put it away, then help them clean up the mess later?
25. Would I rather continue to change poopy diapers every day … or deal with potty misses a few times a week?
26. Would I rather help my kids resolve their every argument … or would I rather help them only when they ask me to and they are choosing to use their words?
27. Would I rather keep the family on a strict bedtime schedule and hectic morning routine in order to get them to school … or would I rather homeschool them and keep the schedule we choose?
28. Would I rather make my young kids do homework every night at the expense of family and free time … or would I rather let their grades slip a bit and let them play more?
29. Would I rather keep everything in my garage that I may need someday … or would I rather risk having to rebuy an item–either a new one or a just as good or better used one off Craigslist–in a few years?
30. Would I rather stand underneath my children on the monkey bars every time … or would I rather relax on the bench and let them fall once in a while?
These are just some of the ways I have rethought my cultural upbringing in the years since having children. Just an off-the-top list; I’m probably missing some big ones. The important thing isn’t how I answer these questions, of course. The important thing is that I ask them.
Recently I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. In it he talked about one of his early memories of another yogi who couldn’t stand working anymore, so he quit and just meditated all day long from then on.
Damn, I thought when I read that. I still love working.
I have a long way to go.
Turns out I’m not a yogi yet. And let’s face it: I probably never will be. In spite of many past efforts–most of them enjoyable, even–sitting meditation just isn’t my thing. Working is. Doing is. Moving my body, getting stuff done. I know it’s not what spiritual people are supposed to say, but … I think I was meant to be a doer.
I think it’s my calling to be non-Zen.
And when I look hard enough, I find a little bit of encouragement for this seeming flaw. In Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me, she makes an impassioned plea for people to find God in doing things they love–mundane things, sensual things, unusual things. Whatever makes you happy. And in several of Eckhart Tolle’s audio recordings he discusses this idea, too, saying that it’s actually better to live life and bring stillness to the living of it rather than becoming a monk somewhere. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to grow, he says. No need to seek a special kind of pain by sitting uncomfortably on an ashram floor. Unless you really want to, that is.
Finally, in In The Presence of A Great Mystery, another audio recording of Tolle’s, he makes another interesting statement. During the question and answer session a man asked him how to not fall asleep during meditation. First, Tolle answered that this is normal, that he’s seen many a monk sleeping during their 4 a.m. meditation session. But then he adds that what’s important in forming a meditation practice isn’t how long you stay in the state of no-mind, but how often you return. In other words, it’s better to hold short meditation “sessions” all throughout your day. “Even ten seconds is enough,” Tolle says.
Ten seconds, I thought. I can do that.
And so, that is what I am doing these days, and it seems to be working really well. My technique is this: I focus on the “inner energy” of my body, as Eckhart Tolle says to do. Then I repeat a positive mantra that feels good to me. As someone who has struggled with negative thinking patterns for a long time, I believe that this act is rewiring my brain to be more positive. In any case, as I meditate I feel calmer and happier by far, and I truly look forward to doing it whenever possible.
Sitting meditation is awesome, but it’s not for everyone–not for all times and seasons of life, at least. Working meditation, moving meditation–these are what I’m enjoying most these days, and what’s helping me the most, too.
The story of my depression starts way back in time, back to some of my first childhood memories. Since then I’ve made a great deal of progress–more than I once thought possible. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have it.
Daily, there’s a routine: Get some exercise, some alone time. Take time to read and write and be with friends. Meditate as much as possible all throughout the day, and never, ever forget to be grateful.
Sleep well, and a lot. Eat healthy. Take medication. Stay busy. Get outside if you can. Take vitamin D, a multivitamin, a cold shower. Then get some more exercise, and meditate again.
Most of the time, this works. It’s work, but it works. So I continue on, and make slow progress. But recently I discovered a technique that is speeding up my results: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Here’s the Wikipedia definition of CBT:
• “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychosocial intervention that is the most widely used evidence-based practice for treating mental disorders.”
And here are quotes from several articles about CBT:
• Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression … Cognitive restructuring refers to the process in CBT of identifying and changing inaccurate negative thoughts that contribute to the development of depression. This is done collaboratively between the patient and therapist, often in the form of a dialogue. For instance, a college student may have failed a math quiz and responded by saying, “That just proves I’m stupid.” … The “I’m stupid” response is an example of an automatic thought … The idea in CBT is to learn to recognize those negative thoughts and find a healthier way to view the situation. http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-for-depression#1
• Dozens of randomized controlled trials (RCT) and other studies support CBT’s efficacy in treating major depressive disorder (MDD). http://www.mdedge.com/currentpsychiatry/article/82695/anxiety-disorders/using-cbt-effectively-treating-depression-and
• A successful response to CBT in the acute phase may have a protective effect against depression recurrences. A 2013 meta-analysis that totaled 506 individuals with depressive disorders found a trend toward significantly lower relapse rates when CBT was discontinued after acute therapy, compared with antidepressant therapy that continued beyond the acute phase. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933381/
• The researchers found that patients with higher levels of connectivity between four brain regions involved in mood regulation were likely to achieve remission with CBT but have a poor response to medication, whereas those with weaker connectivity were more likely to remit using medication and not respond to CBT. http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/research-briefing/brain-scans-could-match-patients-to-best-depression-treatment/20202624.article
Here a few particularly difficult thoughts CBT has helped me overcome. Keep in mind that these are just some of the beliefs, not all, that have altered over the past few months using these processes.
My kids require too much attention. After doing CBT, this thought became: My kids require just the right amount of attention for them. And I require a lot of attention, too! Also, much of the day I’m doing other things–cooking, cleaning, hanging out with friends–things I’d do whether or not the kid were present.
I am sick of breastfeeding. This changed to: I am not sick of breastfeeding. It’s good for the kids. It’s nice downtime for me–I often get to read at the same time. Plus, it helped me lose my extra baby weight.
I am exhausted. This thought became: I’m not exhausted. I am not depleted of energy. There is a great deal of energy in my body for everything my body needs to do. I am thankful that my body notices when it’s time to sleep, and lets me know.
It’s an interesting process, this thought-altering work. Sometimes I can feel the change in my perspective right away. Other times, though, I only notice the change later, when the situation comes up again.
Every time I do it, part of me doubts it will work. Most of the time I’m surprised.
Early last year, I took a break from self-improvement for a while. I stopped trying to meditate. I stopped exercising.
I was just sick of it all.
Wellness practices are wonderful, when they’re wonderful. Other times they just feel like one more obligation. And then I got pregnant, and was sick for three months, and my only unnecessary activity was watching TV reruns. I took care of my family. I ate and slept. But I didn’t do a whole lot else.
Needless to say, this convergence of events brought on a depression relapse. Then November came. My first trimester sickness was over, and I was ready to take up my self-improvement efforts again. So I did something I’d never done before.
I started seeing a therapist.
When I called to make the appointment, the woman asked if I was suicidal. At first I didn’t answer; I just started crying. “No,” I told her. “I don’t want to kill myself. I just don’t really want to live.”
Apparently, that’s what three months without exercise or prayer will do to me.
My first appointment was in December, and I left it feeling quite hopeful. Julie told me that depression may be a temperament, a chemical imbalance, something that’s considered permanent. But many therapists believe that it’s not that simple, that there are other factors, too.
“So long-term relief is possible?” I asked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It is possible,” she said. “A better question, though, is: Is it possible for you?”
She couldn’t tell me for sure if she’d be able to help me feel significantly better for a significant amount of time. “What I can say is that the things we’ll talk about have helped a huge number of other people in your place.”
“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “In a nutshell, what’s the strategy? Do you have some techniques in mind?” Partly, I was curious. Partly, I needed hope. And partly, I was doing a mental calculation, a cost-benefit analysis. With two kids at home, even insurance-covered therapy is a luxury.
Julie laid it out: We’d delve deep into my emotions. We’d analyze incidents that brought up feelings I’d rather not have. In doing so, I’d learn how to face them rather than stuffing them down. I’d also learn to be vulnerable.
“Studies consistently show that the happiest people are those that don’t push down their emotions,” she told me. “Letting yourself feel is the first step.”
And immediately upon hearing this, I knew she was right.
Here’s the thing: Her plan wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Nothing new or revolutionary. But for some reason, until that day, I’d never followed the advice. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to feel bad. I just didn’t think it’d work. In the past, every time I’d decided to look at my pain, it just seemed to grow bigger.
So, I ignored them—at least as much as I possibly could. And then I tried to fix them, find a solution. But feelings, said Julie, don’t need to be fixed. They just needed to be felt.
A bell rang. A Buddhist bell. An Eckhart Tolle/New Age spirituality bell. All that “just notice the thoughts–don’t judge them” stuff kicked in, and I thought, Maybe the Universe is telling me something. So, soon after reading the books by Brene Brown that Julie recommended, I decided to delve into spiritual books again. I bought Matt Kahn’s Whatever Arises, Love That. And I read Pema Chodron for the first time. These books were all about accepting where you’re at–even when you’re in a bad-feeling place.
I was ready to be well again.
Over the next few months, I resumed my meditation practice, along with my exercise routine. I went to therapy a few more times, too, and that helped more than I thought it would. I can’t say for sure which of these activities was the most significant part of my recovery, though I suspect it was the walking. But the spiritual practice I started with during that sensitive time helped a lot, too, and I still do it now sometimes.
I called it my “I hate this” meditation, and I came up with it one day at the gym.
I’d come there to exercise, of course, as well as do some writing, but I was feeling exhausted and just … bad. So instead of doing either, I sat on a comfortable chair and decided to rest for a moment.
I know what I’ll do, I thought after criss-crossing my legs and taking a few deep breaths. I’ll practice this vulnerability thing. I will think about my emotions. Feel them fully. Stop fighting my negative inner dialogue, and judging it.
I will let my bad feelings run free.
And so, that’s what I did. And not half-heartedly. If I was gonna do this, I was gonna do it right. I started a mental checklist of everything—every little thing—that I was hating in that moment. Anything that came up, I put it on the list.
The list got very long, very quickly.
I hated the gym. I hated cleaning the bathroom. I hated getting my kids ready in the morning. I hated the weather, and the way my pregnant belly felt.
I even hated my own pants.
Then something happened. Something I didn’t expect. The depression began to lift. The thoughts lost a bit of their power, their ability to produce fear. You might even say that by letting them run free, they ran away.
After all, I was facing them, and they weren’t that bad. They were just thoughts, you know? Most of them were unreasonable, many untrue. Some of them were even sort of silly. Suddenly I understood what some people call “the space between”–there was space between myself and my thoughts, like a cushion.
Half an hour into this negativity meditation, I moved past the initial lift and into an actual high. Or, not a high exactly—the depression was still there. But alongside it, coexisting with it, was some peace.
For the next two months, I continued my “I hate this” meditation until I didn’t seem to need it anymore. Soon after that, I discovered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and that took me another step forward–but that’s another story.
There’s a fun spirituality book called Zero Limits by one of the speakers featured in the movie The Secret. It’s by law of attraction writer (and super nice guy–he once called my friend to tell her he liked her book) Joe Vitale. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
The book is autobiographical–more a memoir than a traditional self-help. I love a good memoir, and it’s an entertaining read. But even better, it’s practical; it gives an in-depth explanation of a New Age/New Thought-type process for altering your state of mind and your beliefs (and maybe your reality, too). I’ll get into that in a second, but first, a brief assessment for those of you who already know the book.
Does this spiritual practice work against depression?
Yes. As a technique to deal with depression, Zero Limits can be awesome. I’ve tried it with some decent results. But be warned: the process is very similar to just saying mantras, and personally I’m not convinced these mantras are particularly special.
Have you tried it? For how long?
Yes. Not for long, though. Just a few days.
What were your results?
The first time I read Zero Limits, I was super excited. I wrote about this already, in You’re Getting Closer. That first night, I said the phrase over and over, and as I did so, my mood lifted and my head cleared. I entered into the state of meditation and stayed there.
The next day, however, the effect lessened considerably, even though I continued the practice. I decided that my belief in the technique, rather than the technique itself, had been responsible for my results. Since then, I’ve used the method just a few times, and never with the same commitment.
Personally–and this is just my opinion–I’d be more inclined to use the Zero Limits method on a specific situation or physical need, rather than as a way to heal depression. When I repeat a mantra in order to break out of a bad mood, I often end up more frustrated than when I started.
Is this spiritual practice enjoyable, though? Is it easy?
Yes and yes.
How does it work? What do you do, exactly?
Though there are other aspects to the technique, the main activity is repeating four lovely statements as often as possible–continuously?–throughout the day. They are:
Please forgive me.
I love you.
I won’t go into the philosophy behind the choice of statements here; for that, you can read the book. (And I recommend that you do.) The basic idea is that the statements have a cleansing power and can help you resolve any undesirable situation–like depression. By using them and visualizing a cleansing action (such as an eraser erasing a chalkboard), you rid the program from your mind that created it or brought it into your experience.
What’s the up-side?
Like I said, it is enjoyable. And it’s easy. And if you stick with it, you’ll likely see results. I happen to prefer other practices, that’s all.
What’s the down-side?
The book claims that the method is a version of an old Hawaiian healing tradition called Ho’pononpono. However, it’s significantly different from that tradition–a spinoff created by a kahuna named Morna. I’m sure Morna is or was inspired and wonderful. But I would’ve preferred she give her method a different name from the original.
The legend of the book and part of what makes it so popular is that Hew Len, the co-author of the book and of the method, emptied a mental ward of patients by using this method–nothing else.
What’s the bottom line here?
My super scientific, soon-to-be-patented depression effectiveness rating for the Zero Limits method: 5 on a scale of 1-10.
Where can I find out more?
You can read my book summaries and takeaways here:
So, I have a confession to make: I’ve always hated the idea of mindfulness. Here I am, all spiritual and New Agey and stuff, and I’ve never even initiated a conversation about it. Ridiculous, right? Here’s my excuse.
Until very recently, I knew nothing about this spiritual practice. It was just a vague term, and not an especially pleasing one at that. Whereas for some, the idea of mindfulness inspires a sort of beatific glow, for me, it was just another entry on the never-ending to do list of life. Just learning more about it seemed exhausting. Then I actually did learn more–and abruptly changed my perspective.
Right now, as research for this site, I’m reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zin for the first time. Now a modern classic, this gives one of the more detailed, systematic (even medical) approaches to mindfulness meditation. It’s based on the successful hospital classes led by Kabat-Zin many years ago, with more recent additions in the revised version I’m reading. I’m also reading several books by Thich Nhat Hanh right now, and listening to an Eckhart Tolle audiobook. I didn’t think of Tolle as a mindfulness meditation teacher, but I’m seeing now that he is (though he might not appreciate the label).
Previously, I viewed mindfulness as a sort of bland, unoriginal approach to spirituality. I mean, it’s just so popular, right? Even non-spiritual people are doing it. After doing the above reading, though, I changed my mind.
Mindfulness, it turns out, isn’t what I thought it was.
I thought mindfulness was: Enjoying life.
Mindfulness is: Being aware of and accepting whatever thoughts come, whether or not they’re thoughts of enjoyment and appreciation.
I thought mindfulness was: Thinking pleasant thoughts about the ordinary things you see around you as you go throughout your day.
Mindfulness is: Feeling your “inner body,” as Tolle calls it–bringing your attention to the energy within you throughout the day.
I thought mindfulness was: Eating more slowly. Listening more carefully.
Mindfulness is: Being who you are. Doing what comes naturally to you when you’re acting from your highest self.
I thought mindfulness was: Not future-thinking. Not past-thinking.
Mindfulness is: Using your mind in the ways that it serves you. That includes some future- and past-thinking.
I thought mindfulness was: Being in a state of deep acceptance of what is.
Mindfulness is: Being in the state of meditation. Even when you’re not totally able to accept what is.
I thought mindfulness was: A politically correct alternative to more advanced ways of meditating.
Mindfulness is: As advanced as I ever need to be.
In other words: Before, mindfulness seemed to me both overly simplistic as well as impossible to achieve. Now, it seems to be exactly what I already do every day: meditating, appreciating, loving. Rinse, repeat.
I still don’t love the word mindfulness for some reason. At this point, the
guilt-producing mental associations still sully it. But I do like mindfulness itself.
Here, a self-interview about using this practice for depression.
Does this spiritual practice work against depression?
Yes. For sure. Probably for everyone.
Have you tried it? For how long?
Possibly the main takeaway I got from my recent reading is that I’ve actually been practicing mindfulness meditation for at least four years now. I don’t do many long sitting meditations these days, but my main spiritual practice is to enter into a state of meditation–just a behind-the-scenes sort of sensing of the Divine–in the morning and to hold that place throughout the day. I certainly don’t always succeed in this (read You’re Getting Closer to see what I mean). But when I fail, I return. It’s my most consistent spiritual habit, and as it turns out, it’s nothing special–just what everyone is talking about: mindfulness.
What were your results when using mindfulness for depression?
At times, total transformation of my mood, immediately. Other times, frustration due to just not feeling it.
Is it easy?
For me, yes and no. It does take work, especially for the first several years of practice. It’s a tough habit to create and keep.
How long does the effect last? Does it keep working or does the effect taper off after a few weeks or months?
The mood effect does not taper off at all for me if I practice consistently throughout the day, week or month. And after a break–even a long one–I can pick up right where I left off.
How does it work? What do you do, exactly?
The answer to this question is different for everyone; there are so very many ways to be mindful.
For some, mindfulness is simply noticing what is and thinking thoughts of appreciation. For others, it is noticing unhelpful thoughts and letting them pass, turning their attention to their present surroundings instead. Right now, for me, my main mindfulness practice is to say a mantra many times throughout the day, as follows: I am sensing my inner body. I’m doing what feels deeply right. This reminds me to come back to myself, then check in with my intuition when making any kind of decision. It works wonderfully for me.
I also say, Thank you, God, and There is time for that, too. (This last because of my Type A accomplishment obsession.) And since I’m not so great at just thinking about trees or children’s smiles or whatever, I think thoughts of appreciation about these things. In other words, instead of saying to myself, Here are the trees. They are green and beautiful, I might say something like, I so appreciate these trees. I am so lucky to live here.
Does that make sense? For me, this subtle difference is huge.
Is this practice scientifically backed?
Yes. There are many books on the benefits of meditation in general, but mindfulness meditation is particularly well-researched. It is used outside spiritual circles–in hospitals, therapy practices and much more.
What’s the downside?
None that I can think of, except that it may take years and years of practice for it to feel natural and easy. At least, it did for me. And I definitely still struggle.