I can look back on my episode in the depths of despair with gratitude. Without that period of madness, my mindfulness practice would have remained in the ‘should’ pile alongside many other I’ll-get-round-to-it-when-I-have-the-time projects. Broken into a million pieces, you tend to only pick up the bits that are truly important to take with you into the next phase of the journey.
I feel quite sorry for the mildly miserable, they might never be down enough to be forced to look for another way; sleepwalking through a life of grumpy discontent. No, I am glad to have been painfully depressed, stabbed and prodded into wakefulness. I had no other choice to commit to a practice, I could no longer be ruled by my thoughts. And, oh, the joy of contrast; in the moment of becoming the observer and recognising your own power to sit back, to watch, to choose, to bask in separation. How quickly our relationship with our thoughts can shift, and how remarkable this shift can be. Suddenly the world, once dark, appears in full beautiful colour. It is like when you misplace your keys in your living room, you know they are in there somewhere so you really open your eyes and look. And with this new way of looking, really looking, something happens. Familiar items within the room suddenly appear to you with a vibrancy and clarity as if they are being seen for the very first time.
For me, meditation is like brushing my teeth; I just wouldn’t want to go out and breathe my un-meditated breath on anyone. An un-meditated me feels a bit gross, sloppy, unfocused, easily carried away by the rivers of thought. For those people that manage to feel sane without meditating I salute you, I am not sure how you do it. Meditation isn’t the only way of being mindful, but it is the best way to start cultivating it. I love to learn and during my first flushes of falling for mindfulness my appetite for knowing all there was to know on the ‘subject’ was ferocious. I devoured book after book at breakneck speed, it seems funny to reflect back on all that striving. What meditation teaches us when we sit and look is that we already know everything we need to know. Whilst we have a very human need to learn, it is in unlearning we find the being bit of ourselves. Like all things we try to attain, we can get lost in doing mindfulness, but quietly as we practice, we realise mindfulness instead. And with each realisation another layer of ourselves falls away, we see things a little more clearly and the subtle hum of happiness begins to beam through into every part of our being.
Being terribly depressed was one of the best things that could have happened to me. All pain is a messenger, and the message I had ignored for too long was that I was on the wrong path in my life. I see this time and time again with clients who come to me looking to overcome depression. So strong the pull of how we think we want our lives to look, we begin to override our internal sat nav until we can no longer hear the voice of truth within us, we become lost to ourselves. So the messenger of emotion ups the anti, louder and louder pain shouts, our heart beats faster and anxiety rings in our ears. When we really hit rock bottom there is no choice but to finally ‘get the message’ and from down there we get a chance to truly begin again.
How beautiful this principle of beginners’ mind, we really can give ourselves permission to start over, with each new moment comes a new beginning and each mediation a place to get familiar with beginning again and again. When in meditation we forget to begin again; frustration, anger and boredom arises as holding up a mirror to us until we see what we are doing to ourselves. To see that reflection is such a teaching, I am chuckling to myself as I write this because an old earworm has returned to sing the Radiohead lyrics to me; ‘you do it to yourself you do and that’s what really hurts’. This full human experience really does hurt sometimes, it can be so painful and yet so exquisitely beautiful all at the same time. It is so hard for the mind to accept these two opposing truths and that’s ok too – because not all things can be figured out on the level of the mind. If you are in pain you know you are alive, and being alive is certainly something to feel grateful for. So feel pain, but know that you don’t have to feed it with your thoughts. Instead of mindlessly scattering seeds for the crows to peck, we can consciously plant seeds that we gently cultivate.
Depression is a pushing downwards, low thoughts take us on their repetitive downward spiral into lower and lower mood, the body joins this journey like grabbing onto the back of a conga line – with each kick a release of stress hormones, a slumping of posture, a reducing of immunity, forwards and downwards we dance. We lose ourselves in the dance, we become the dance and the dance becomes us, smothering and suffocating in its embrace. In meditation we sit in separation, thought comes and goes and when we don’t engage we see this separation for ourselves. Thought only becomes thinking when we choose to get involved with it. In stillness, free will is placed right under the spotlight of our attention. As thought forms float through we begin to see them for what they are, they are just thoughts and they are not us. And so the grip lessens, our relationship with our thoughts changes and release arrives.
We have the power to choose to act in ways which lift us in an upward direction, to embrace more of those things which make us feel alive and move away from those that deplete us. I used to be very busy trying to control the universe, it was exhausting. These days I choose more carefully the parts I play and try to be playful in the playing of them. I particularly enjoy being DJ when it comes to choosing what song to play in my head, if you don’t like your thoughts you can always change the record.
That’s not to say that the cloud of depression never floats into my life to obscure the view, but nowadays I see it for what it is – just a cloud. Mindfulness has made me recognise my own innate strength, I feel content in the knowledge that whatever the storm it will pass and that I have the power to weather it. The sun is always shining behind the clouds.
This article by Frances Trussell was originally published on ‘everyday mindfulness’