chronic pain

Mindfulness #5: Creating a Team When You’re Depressed

Our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class has come to an end. There were tears and hugs when we said goodbye.

Nine weeks ago we looked at each other with minds that were wary, scared, curious, self-conscious. Today we are Sangha for each other, and we will miss each other. And we will miss our teacher. Today many of us are scared to be without each other. I’m scared.

I wonder whether I’ll keep up my meditation practice, or whether it will wither on the vine. I wonder whether I’ll grow to loathe it – that thing I’m not doing for myself that I know I should do. I wonder whether I’ll keep the progress I’ve made or slide back. I wonder whether I’ll keep progressing.

I wonder whether “it’s worked,” whether I’ve avoided another major episode of depression. And I know the answer isn’t written. Doesn’t exist. I wonder whether I’ll wither again.

“Find yourself a Sangha,” our teacher told us. Find yourself a group to practice with. You need a group. You need a team.

Find yourself a Sangha.

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Thank God for Google Wormholes

Your brainThrough a sort of depression google search wormhole, I came across a book called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. (It’s the book that made me realize that depressives should skip the first few chapters of every book on depression because they’re almost always focused on validating depression as a disease. The goal seems to be convincing the reader that depression is SUPER bad, which, for those of us in the thick of it, is super depressing. Nowadays I start at the chapter where they start to talk about getting better.)

That book led me to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who, in addition to being an extremely well respected author and practitioner of mindfulness-based therapies for the chronically ill, seems to have taken his wife’s name when he married. My kind of guy.

It turns out that Kabat-Zinn is co-author of a book called The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, which I highly recommend. He’s also the creator of a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which uses meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to treat everything from high blood pressure and chronic pain to depression and panic disorders.

So I signed up for the course and during my introductory meeting with our instructor, after explaining my situation, I asked him why he thought I should take his course. “You need to rewire your brain.” he answered.

Huh.

So I’m currently in my third week of the eight week course and am struck by how simple and straightforward it is on one level, and how complex and contradictory I also find it. Focus on the breath but don’t strive to focus on the breath. Relax but stay awake. Clear your mind but be aware of your thoughts. Do this every day for an hour but be easy on yourself and take life as it comes.

More on that later. In the meantime, I am both thoroughly enjoying the course and struggling with its teachings – which I’m pretty sure is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing (though, of course, there is no “supposed to”).

A final book recommendation – Kabat-Zinn’s bible of mindfulness: Full Catastrophe Living.

Photo by Hey Paul Studios on Flickr

We’re Not the Only Ones

hopeThe loneliness of depression often tricks us into believing that we’re facing something completely unique. That we’re out here alone and no one is trying to reach us, no one is trying to help.

It’s not true.

I once worked in the US Senate and my favorite part was getting the chance to sit down with patients and their advocates almost every day. Children with epilepsy, adults with debilitating psoriasis, families who’d lost a loved one to suicide. Cancer, chronic pain, paralysis, ALS. Almost all of them requested the same thing – more funding for medical research.

After a year or so I realized that almost all of them were asking for the same, most fundamental thing – hope. Many of them were asking not for themselves, but for their children. Many were asking not for their children, who were already gone, but for future generations of children – so that they might not suffer.

“You never know,” they often added, “what else we might discover while researching blindness.” You never know how close the next treatment might be. They came to Washington with the sense that they were not in this alone, that what was good for them would be good for others, would be good for the whole country. They came insisting that, if we cared, we could do something together, to help each other.

I think they were right.

Photo by US Army Africa on Flickr.

Chilling the fuck out

I’m reading a book on mindfulness and depression. The authors posit that people are more vulnerable to depression and relapse when they spend a lot of their time in a ‘comparing’ state of mind – that is, when you’re noticing the difference between how things are and how you’d like them to be. They contrast that with a ‘being’ or ‘observing’ state of mind, which is characterized by noticing the present moment and accepting it for what it is.

Comparing state of mind? That’s me.

It makes sense to me that you appreciate any given moment less when you’re preoccupied with changing it, when you’re comparing it to the past or planning ways to make it different in the future. It makes sense to me that a ‘comparing’ state of mind would be exhausting, because the call to action is constant. A ‘being’ mind sounds like a welcome relief – peaceful and calm.

(I’m reminded of my attempts to notice those moments when I feel like my mind can rest.)

To develop their mindfulness-based treatment plan to avoid relapse in people who have had depression, the authors looked to a program designed for patients with chronic pain. Instead of fighting the pain, the patients learned to regard it with a gentle, kindly awareness.

(I’m reminded of my friend who eventually came around to loving the mean voice.)

This approach to avoiding relapse does not emphasize the content of your thoughts, such as getting over your specific triggers. Instead it tries to change the relationship you have with your thoughts. It tries to help you understand that not every thought reflects reality. Not every thought deserves a reaction.

My Dog: Not Excellent in the Fetch Department. GENIUS at Chilling Out

My Dog: Not Great at Fetch, GENIUS at Chilling Out

I realized after (during?) my first(?) major episode in college that what I needed, in a very serious way, was to chill the fuck out. Mindfulness-based approaches to depression seem to be saying the same thing.

When you can spend less time fighting and more time with a gentle awareness, it makes sense to me that you’ve made a big step toward resilience – a step toward the source of your happiness being within you.

Sounds nice, right?