John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More
In sorting through boxes of old papers today, I came upon part of a meditation and some journal notes from the period in my life when I was recovering from a cancer operation. I was dealing with depression at the same time and searching for new approaches to healing beyond the physical treatments and medications that comprised the aftermath of major surgery. I was trying to deal more with depression than cancer since the surgery had been successful.
What I found was a part of the Loving Kindness Meditation, as that had been taught to me:
May I be healed
May I feel love
May I experience myself for what I am
May I accept myself
When I had cancer, I felt a strong will to overcome the disease, a sudden and powerful burst of basic life force. It arrived just when the voice of depression was trying to lull me into using cancer as a way of ending my life. I just refused to let myself die.
That resurgence of spirit carried me through the operation and its immediate aftermath, but as more normal life returned the underlying depression reasserted itself. It wasn’t long before I was searching for help again. I found it with a therapist who made extensive use of meditation.
I was open to that approach since I had been reading about Buddhism and healing approaches based on meditation, such as that described in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living.” His presentation of mindfulness and healing was more accessible than others I had read.
He distinguishes between healing and curing. Curing ends the disease process, but healing captures the ability to see things differently, to experience wholeness. Meditation is the method to attain an inner stillness in which you can grasp the fullness of your being and transcend fears and boundaries of both mind and body. As he puts it, when you connect with this fullness, you have a sense of being larger than the illness and better able to deal with them.
I meditated every day, often on long walks into the foothills near our New Mexico home. Those hours helped quiet the intense anxiety I was feeling (for me that’s a common part of what I go through in long depressive periods). I was constantly zapped with electricity from all directions – the anxiety was like a lightening storm that took the place of real feeling.
Here is some of the guidance the therapist gave me for dealing with nervousness – an essential step before I could hope to reach an experience of the wholeness of my own being.
- Be mindful of fears and nervousness
- Number them
- Focus on breath
- Note them one at a time, return to breath
- Be aware of breathing – acknowledge breath by saying: in/out
- Focus on the center of the chest – go way inside
- Explore the feeling.
And here is what I wrote one day in the midst of this work with meditation:
“Crying so much in the last twelve hours, it feels like a deep change is taking place. To know that I have finally hit my deepest feelings breathes relief right through me. It is all right to feel overwhelmed, to feel grief, to let it sink in that this is not an adventure or diversion, but it is really all of me. I know that I can be helpless and sad in the face of this reality. The self hate seems so rooted in what the buddhists called the eight worldly concerns (I wanted to call them griefs) – attachment to getting material things, aversion to blame, attachment to praise, etc. Perhaps now I can feel myself touching bottom and can begin to see where I really am – what my hunger and hurt are all about. What I learn. What I die for and live for.”
Feeling and recognizing that I am sick is the beginning of healing.
Ultimately, meditation helped me see clearly the forces of anxiety, shame, self-hatred and fear darting about in me like wild birds suddenly caught in the confines of a room. Lightening-like breaks for escape, flying bodies crashing into every barrier, shot-like bursts away from a strange human waving them toward windows, caws and shrieks of panic filling the air. In meditative walks, I could finally see them as separate from me and sweep them for a time from my soul. But only for a time.
Even though the fears, anxieties and depressed feelings of self-hate would come back again and again, something changed within me. I lost the belief that I consisted solely of those maddening furies. I could believe that I was more than the sum of those parts of depression, and this new belief was the most powerful change that meditation helped me to achieve.
The force of belief is everything in trying to overcome depression. Until I could stop believing that what I thought of myself when depressed was true, I could not begin to turn things around and heal, or experience the wholeness of my own being.
What role has meditation played in your efforts to overcome the effects of depression and its related disorders?