When we experience depression we often describe it with phrases like: “I’m in a black mood”, or “It smothers me like a heavy blanket”, or “Its like being in a thick fog”, or “I feel like I’m wading through treacle.”
These and similar descriptions provide interesting clues about the nature of emotions like depression, anxiety or fear: Emotions have a structure, and that structure is encoded in imagery and physical sensations. Why is this important? Well, quite simply because when we uncover the structure of an emotion, we then have something tangible to which we can relate to and work with. Emotions like depression are typically very amorphous, like a swirling fog, they have no handles that we can grab hold of and work with. This is why depression is often accompanied by feelings of helplessness and despair, because we cannot even see the thing that is controlling us. We become victims of our emotions. How can you change something that has no form?
Luckily, emotions do have a form; the problem is that we are not aware of it. However, we can become aware of the inner structure of depression through mindfulness, and this approach to healing is called Mindfulness Meditation Therapy.
What is mindfulness? It is simply the direct attention to things as they arise in our experience, without any hint of reactivity, wanting, not wanting, or even thinking about what we are observing. Mindfulness is being fully present for our emotions, our experiences, without any judgemental observer, but most importantly of all, without becoming identified with the emotion that we are observing. We have this awful tendency to become the contents of our mind. The emotion of depression arises, and we become the depression: It takes control and dominates consciousness and we suffer. Mindfulness is the antidote to this blind habitual conditioned reactivity that the Buddha called avijja, or ignorance. This is the unawareness and sleepwalking mode of being that keeps us stuck in our depression, anxiety and fear.
In Mindfulness Meditation Therapy, we learn how to stop becoming victims of habitual reactivity. We start to take charge and investigate our emotions, including depression, with mindfulness. We learn to develop a relationship with depression as an object that arises in their consciousness, rather than blindly being overwhelmed by it every time it appears.
Working with colors. What color is your depression?
Here is one simple exercise that you can experiment with. Close your eyes, take a few minutes to relax with some deep breaths, and then when you feel ready, turn your attention towards the depression. Sometimes, we get a strong sensation of where the emotion is in our bodies; perhaps it is in the pit of the stomach, or in the heart area.
Now simply sit with the emotion, knowing that you are looking at the emotion. This is being mindful of the emotion. The practice is called mindfulness meditation, where the emotion is the object of your meditation. If you get distracted, recognize that you have been pulled away and gently return your mindful attention back onto the depression. Don’t allow yourself to become the depression, or to indulge in thinking about the depression; simply feel its presence and continue to observe it with mindfulness. If you feel yourself being sucked into the emotion, recognize this force, pull yourself back and stay mindful. Each time you catch yourself and are mindful of what is happening as it is happening is a small, but significant victory. This is how you will gain your freedom from habitual reactivity and depression: one small victory at a time; the effect is cumulative.
Now, as you continue mindfulness meditation on the depression, observe the color of the emotion. Observe the color, and sense at the intuitive level if the color fits the emotion or if you need to make some adjustments. If the color is black, is it shiny or dull, hard or soft? Does the color take the form of a solid object or is it diffuse like a cloud? Take your time to explore all these subtle details. The power is in the details, because this gives you a handle on the emotion. Coming to know the structure of your depression helps you establish a relationship with it, and this helps prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by the emotion when it arises.
The more you see, the more power you have; the less you see, the more power you give to the emotion.
When you have established a good mindful relationship with your depression and you have a good sense of its color, you can proceed to the next stage, which is to do a series of experiments, making changes in the color. Maintain mindfulness at all times so that you can assess at the intuitive level if any of these changes are effective. Trust in your intuition and you will be amazed at how the deeper intuitive intelligence of your psyche will guide this process and make very subtle changes that have a profound healing effect. If the depression has a shiny black color, try changing it to a powdery white color. Check to see if that change helps. You may need to use spray paint, or perhaps just warm the black object up, or sprinkle water over it. No one can tell you what changes to make; but if you trust in your intuition and stay mindful, your psyche will always show you the way.
Experiment with this process many times, and repeat your mindfulness mediation sessions every day. You will be quite delighted at the positive effects that come from working with your depression in this way, as something to sit with and work with in a creative way, rather than reacting out of habit.
The underlying principle is that emotions have an internal structure and that structure is formed around imagery, the natural language of the psyche. Change the imagery and you change the emotion. But for change to be effective, you need mindfulness so that you can tune in at the intuitive level and find those changes that feel right, rather than trying to impose changes that don’t fit.