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Simple and effective techniques to fight depression
on 30 July 2012
I've suffered from depression most of my adult life and in that time have been fighting it on numerous fronts: Antidepressants, exercise, dietary changes, CBT and of course enough self help books to start a small shop on the subject. But all of these have only helped with some of the symptoms, none have really cured my depression and none have gone to the heart of it and shown me WHY I am depressed.
I had read in numerous places that meditation was considered beneficial and a particular branch of this, "mindfulness", even more so. But my first experiences with this subject were not good. Having bought the Dummies guide initially, it certainly had many "Aha!" moments but no structure and like most self help books soon went back on the shelf and out of memory. Then I tried a guided meditation CD which whilst considered one of the best in the field it was just too long - I can manage to stay awake for maybe 10 minutes at most when relaxing in this manner and I dare say anyone else on medication for depression would be the same. So that became a useful tool to help me sleep but nothing else.
This book was different. I'll be blunt, I nearly didn't buy it, having become jaded with the whole self-help philosophy but the good reviews and above all the ridiculously low price made this worth the risk. What this book does is give a formal structure - an 8 week course - to the whole idea of mindfulness, plus it gets you going with some very sensible length guided meditations on the CD. With most of these well under 10 minutes, the chances of nodding off are greatly diminished and the typical objections such as "I don't have time" are overcome. And let's be frank about this, if you're suffering from depression and feeling low, you CAN justify 10 minutes a day to try and fight it.
But talk about one huge red herring! Like many, I thought meditation was sitting cross-legged and staring into space. Whilst to an outsider this might appear to be what you are doing for some of this course (well apart from the cross-legged bit, you can sit or lie however you like) what's actually happening inside your head is remarkable. For more information on this you need to be careful to look up psychological mindfulness rather than the religious one, since there is virtually no reference to any religion in this course; this is not a course about Buddhism or any practice designed to enlighten you or take you to God.
What this is all about is giving you the tools to gently, carefully, see how your entire thought processes work. To use an analogy, imagine you have been living in a City all your life and this book takes you for a walk up a nearby hill, letting you look back on the scene and giving you a view you never had before. And it's as easy as going for a walk - just practice the mindfulness exercises in the book and on the CD - then things click. Yes, you may feel silly to start with (I did), yes you might think you're rubbish at meditating (I am), yes some of the exercises do elicit a feeling of "What's the point?" but stick with it, slowly but surely you are changing the way you look at life and more importantly, starting to detach yourself from the self-destructive thought processes which contribute to or even, as in my case, actually seed your depression.
How can something so gentle work so well? Everyone has their own view on this. Personally, I think the main power of this type of course is that YOU have to do the work. Yes, you really do need to do this every day and that won't suit everyone. But when you do, what you discover is self-discovered, you learn and heal by direct experience of something tangible, rather than blindly believing or accepting something you're told (which is the premise of many self help books, especially ones promising quick fixes).
The irony about this book is this: The worse you think you are at meditating the better mindfulness is! Because the other red herring is the whole foundation of mindfulness (coming into the present and freeing yourself from the shackles of the past and the worry of the future) is built on seeing what's going wrong in our heads, where our thought processes get screwed up. And how do we discover this? By failing at meditation and then gently and compassionately thinking "Ah, I can see I've wandered off track" - and repeating this over and over, seeing first and then understanding later how this process works. How the mind and our thoughts work and take us away from the moment we live in - this moment. How our whole life is a train of thoughts that just keep coming but one which we can learn to control. It's about switching off the autopilot.
So does it work? For me, yes. This is the first treatment in my whole adult life (I'm 40 now) which unlocked the root causes of my illness. It happened one morning in the shower actually just three days into this course. I was starting to run over some event that happened many years ago, reshaping it into something that might happen in the future, getting very negative about the whole thing, my mind running on and on. I remembered one of the exercises in the first week, to do something mindful as it teaches you to do. Then I saw it - I saw my depressive, negative thoughts from the outside. For the first time, I was no longer IN my thoughts, being that depressive and anxious person, I was seeing the whole process from the outside. From then, over the 8 weeks, this idea and concept was refined and re-enforced.
The book actually went further than this, but I am reluctant to waffle on too much about my experiences because it will sound too good to be true! Let's just say I have never been happier and my whole life experience has become the opposite of depression - I have been given new eyes. I should point out that I do this course now on a rolling basis, having first started seven months ago. I wanted to wait this long before reviewing since I still retained some concern it might be a temporary fix, but it does seem to have rewired many faulty parts of my life on a permanent basis.
The only thing this book lacks is any help or guidance on interacting with the same people who only knew you as a depressed person. You may experience a growing gulf between yourself and those around you when you become aware of what's underneath and start to unlock the good things there. Trying to explain this all to friends and family - which you'll want to, you'll be excited - is hard work because the tangible results and feelings you get are difficult to explain in lay terms (you have to experience it to understand it). You may also find that other people cannot explain the fact you do actually smile a lot more - you're so happy - they can become defensive and please don't let this burst your bubble. Just remember: This is all about YOU.
It has also opened many doors to areas I was previously a skeptic to, notably spirituality and the concept of us (as in the "I", the person or soul inside) being separate from our thoughts which I personally believe is the key to getting a grip on depressive illness.
For anyone else interested after you have tried this course there are a couple of recommendations for further reading from Amazon. The first is "Untethered Soul" by Michael Singer. This approaches core concepts of mindfulness from a non-meditation perspective. If meditation is the gentle and flowing guide, then Untethered Soul is the street-fighter which will club you over the head; it pulls no punches and therefore is good as further reading once you have a grounding in the basics. I found a combination of the tools from Mindful Meditation and Untethered Soul quite a potent mix in some challenging life events. "Mindfulness for Dummies" is a useful follow up book (by Shamash Alidina), mostly because of the reworking of the same ideas in different ways and the CD providing more guided meditation, though I cannot recommend it as a starting point to this journey because of its lack of good structure, only as a useful way of continuing your progress.
Finally, if you get hooked on the meditation side then by far the best book to explore this that I have found is "Buddhist Meditation" by Kamalashila. Obviously the slant on meditation here is a religious one (but in a nice and non-intrusive way) however this book has some very practical tools and guides to help you meditate without a guided CD, this is the start of yet another journey.