In the last article we concluded that the avoidance of difficult emotions is a major component of depression. But emotion is natural—it is the movement of energy within and it is hard-wired. Even before we had language, we had emotion. So, why does it cause us problems?
Well, we live in a culture in which we are expected to feel good and yet we do not. Life’s experiences are not all sunny and those that contradict our expectations give rise to confusion and self-doubt. Influenced by this confusion and doubt, we become attached to explaining and understanding emotion. In Japan and China, people have fewer mental disorders. One possible reason for this might be the influence of Buddhist tradition and, in particular, the practice of nonattachment. Nonattachment means not having preferences regarding any experience or its outcome and simply allowing life to be whatever it is. This ability to remain neutral may lead to a more integrated, adjusted individual whose emotions are simply energies that do not have to be understood.
As Westerners, the solution to the discomfort that normal emotions can cause lies in observing our experiences and the feelings that arise from them and learning to both accept them and use them as pointers to what we need to change in our lives. In order to implement this process, however, we must understand why people have such a hard time doing so!
This difficulty relates to the complexity of the mind. We think with it, analyze, compare, reason, evaluate, and categorize with it. This thinking machine offers us labels and categories, which then defines and mediates our experience rather than flowing with it. Even our consciousness of self is a construction of the mind! The concept of one’s self as a body with emotions and perceptions is a psychological event [i] achieved by the third year of life. The mind, therefore, is the king, and it is in total control of how we experience life. Given its analytical nature, it is hard to simply experience the present moment; instead, we veer into evaluation, leading to avoidance of that which is negatively perceived.
The solution is to use the mind in a different way—to practice mindfulness, a way to master emotions and restore us to basic sanity. During one of my first Buddhist retreats, I heard, “…either the horse rides us (reactive mind) or we ride the horse (wisdom mind).” I had little understanding of what was being said, but I have since learned that the metaphor refers to the distinction between cultivating mindfulness, and an ability to witness how mind works (wisdom mind), or being on autopilot and feeling owned by mind through identification with it and its relentless chatter (reactive mind). This distinction is the difference between acceptance of thoughts as they arise (the Buddhist neutral principle of nonattachment) and being trapped in a vicious cycle of personalization, meaning everything that is happening is about me.
So, how does one become a mind watcher and thereby, prevent avoidance? We start by gaining an understanding of the difference between thinking and direct, immediate attunement to the present experience. Those of us who have practiced meditation have experienced how thinking arises out of emptiness–a non-conceptual gap– and moves back into this gap. Even while noticing this impersonal space in meditation, many of us get trapped in believing that we are “our” thoughts. This automatic fusion of thought as personal sets us up for avoidance—we get trapped in what we perceive as negative thinking, which shifts our mood. As our mood darkens, our thoughts become more negative, and we enter a vicious cycle that makes us want to avoid the situations and interactions that produce the unpleasant emotions. But, we can mediate the process of being “owned” by our thoughts by witnessing and observing “thinking” as an impersonal aspect of mind, which is different from relying on “thinking” as the truth of experience or of who we are. This ability to distinguish who we are from our thoughts is what is most critical to stepping out of the depression rut.
Here is an example that can help clarify the difference between reactive and wisdom mind. I wake up unsettled; I sense a black mood. I can choose to fuel this experience or not. (You can actually not feed the thinking machine, if you are aware of what is happening.) Often there is no logic involved in waking up feeling disturbed. It just happens. Yet, before you know it, reactive mind finds a way to explain the experience. You might hear yourself think: “I’m down because I’m afraid I won’t have enough money to pay my bills.” Instead of accepting that the experience may not have an explanation, reactive mind insists on formulating one, and we buy into it. The downward spiral deepens. On the other hand, wisdom mind allows the shakiness, allows the temporary sense of isolation, and finds itself right back in basic goodness, right on the spot, (no questions, no answers) just the spaciousness that doesn’t need to make something out of a passing experience; instead, wisdom mind rests with the feeling of depression without looking for something wrong as the source and then magnifying it through analysis, evaluation and explanation.
So, what I’m requesting of you, the reader, is an unflinching commitment to mindfully observe your relationship to thinking. We are all experiencing difficulties; we are all fearful of events over which we have no control. Yet, some of us have a basic sense of confidence in the unfolding of life. This trust, this gentle approach to living can be cultivated. Some people are fortunate enough to be this way naturally while others must work very hard to develop trust. Those of us who suffer with depression must practice everyday cultivating mindfulness by watching our thoughts. We must ask, “Are our thoughts owning us, riding us?” Or, “Are we observing them, riding them?” This fearless practice offers relief from identification with thinking and frees one from avoidance and the constriction that causes depression.
[i] Object relations theorist, Margaret Mahler, wrote in The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant that there is an intrapsychic process (thinking), which occurs in the first three years of life that leads to a consistent sense of self.
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