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Depression, Suffering, and Mindfulness

Treating OCD with mindfulness meditation, and what it implies about suffering.

by
Charlie Martin

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October 20, 2013 - 4:00 pm
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One of the cool things about writing these columns is that I’m always learning something new. Sometimes it’s reading new things — I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhist yogacara recently — sometimes it’s that I find new ideas as a result of trying to explain something in a column, and sometimes, like today, it’s that I’ve run into something I’d never seen before.

Regular readers know that I’ve suffered for most of my life from depression. In fact, “double depression”, chronic dysthymia with occasional acute episodes of depression. Chronic dysthymia is basically chronic low-level depression, what Shirley Maclaine is talking about in Steel Magnolias when she says “I”m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!”

One of the characteristics of depression is obsessive thoughts: you find yourself obsessively thinking that there’s no hope, that you have failed and will always fail, that you’re unworthy of happiness, worthless, and a burden to yourself, your friends, and your family. For me, one of the striking things about antidepressants, especially Prozac, fluoxetine, the one that has worked best for me, is that my thinking about these things became clearer. I was more able to recognize when I was really unhappy above something, and when it was just depression “thinking me” that way.

So, as I’ve written about suffering and the end of suffering in the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that there’s a sort of obsessiveness there too. Sitting zazen, meditating, gives you a look at your mental processes. You get yourself settled, you start watching your breath or counting or repeating a mantra, and you find yourself dragged away by other thoughts. You catch yourself dwelling on those thoughts, anticipating or remembering pleasures, worrying about things to come or remembering with embarrassment things that have happened, fantasizing about what you should have said, or what you are going to say.

Those are all examples of the roots of suffering: trishna, “thirst” or “desire”, for pleasant things, desire to avoid unpleasant things, desire to make or control things or simply be something else. I, for example, want to be a dragon.

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All Comments   (9)
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For those willing to try a psychological/spiritual approach to dealing with depression I found this very helpful website. I recommend it to many of my psychotherapy clients with whom I am working with for depression. http://depression.lightunlimitedpublishing.com. The tools offered actually work for those willing to apply themselves. Having worked with depressed clients for 40 years I find that therapy with a psychotherapist who has experience with depression and some good self-help tools like those mentioned above is a good long term solution to ending depression. It takes real commitment on the part of the depressed individual to getting out of that dark place but it can be done.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've found that recordings by Alan Watts, Jack Kornfield and Thanissaro Bhikkhu helpful.

I have also attended Vipassana Meditation Retreats that were held at the Theraveda Buddhist Monastery that I attend in Turner, Oregon. We have them a couple of times a year usually taught by Adjahn Chalee and Ben Heffer. It's in English and Thai
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah. Tara Brach has some good stuff too. Vipassana is more or less another sttyle of mindfulness meditation.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
My depression history sounds a lot like yours (even to the fluoxetine). However, I haven't experienced the sort of obsessive thinking you describe - even in a very severe, totally dysfunctional depressive state.

But there's certainly a similarity in that thinking gets quite negative - a well known characteristic of clinical depression.

My best way of dealing with it, other than medication, is recognizing that the thoughts and negative self image are disordered depressive thinking and should not be dwelt upon (i.e. not taken as meaningful). I learned that from a popular book on cognitive therapy, and it's been a very useful insight. It doesn't make the thoughts go away, but it helps in keeping them from driving a depressive spiral.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, absolutely -- depression is different from OCD and certainly doesn't have the same degree of obsessive thinking. The thing I'm starting to wonder is if all of duhkha isn't basically disordered thinking.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
I just take up various hobbies to occupy my time. That is not definitively cheaper than therapy depending on the hobby, but task based focus does relieve the symptoms of my seasonal affective disorder related depression.

I'm not certain how much Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is related to depression as I don't have too many classical OCD style behaviors. I tend to think OCD relates more closely to attempts to relieve anxiety than depression. My limited anxiety is of the typical social variety that most people experience I believe.

I would certainly guess the amount of medication/therapy required is related to how much any psychological issue is interfering with someone's ability to participate in a normal lifestyle. I can work, socialize, and maintain relationships without too much difficulty, so I tend to reject a personal need to medicate or use more typical theraputic techniques for myself. People with more personal suffering may rightfully feel different about it.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, the main connection in my mind is that depression does have an aspect of obsessive thoughts. But from the Buddhist standpoint I'm seriously starting to think maybe duhkha in general is similar.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am so glad to see meditation and mindfulness becoming mainstream and popular in the community. I have been recommending meditation and mindfulness to my psychotherapy practice clients for almost 4 decades. Many people ask me, “How do I begin meditating? How do I learn how to do it”? Often it is helpful to have some instruction for meditation. If an instructor or training is not available locally I usually suggest they start with these two guided mindfulness meditation training mp3s, Meditation 1 and Meditation 2 at http://www.meditation-download.com. The process is quite simple. It takes consistent practice but the results are well worth the small effort required.
One can argue all day about the effectiveness of meditation or mindfulness or one can try it and see for oneself. I usually recommend the second option.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Absolutely. My first real teacher was a guy named Hugh Lasater in Pueblo CO. He used zazen in *his* therapy practice.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
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