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    Depression and Meditation

    tomQ: I have been suffering from depression for many years and have experienced some relief from psychotherapy and medication. I’ve recently started meditating every day, and it’s really improved the way I feel. What do you think about using mind-training techniques like meditation to cure depression?

    A: Meditation is probably the oldest technique for treating mental suffering. I don’t believe that, alone, it’s an adequate treatment for the most severe forms of clinical depression, but I do believe that it can be a very effective tool use in addition to what you’re already doing.

    I also have some personal experience with using meditation to treat depression. Some years ago, after a painful break-up with a partner, I turned to mindfulness meditation practice to find relief from the depression and grief. The practice involved not trying to change anything; not trying to move toward pleasure or away from pain, but simply to be aware of whatever was happening in the present moment. We spend most of our waking moments trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but meditation is a radical departure from our usual habits. Instead of trying to change our emotional states, we simply give a full and accepting attention to what’s actually happening.

    One of the first things I learned during this period was that depression is a highly stigmatized condition. Most of us feel somewhat ashamed of being depressed, and we usually treat it as if it’s an enemy we have to defeat. But times of depression can be important and valuable. Some periods of depression are signs that something about our old way of life is no longer working. They’re invitations to become inward and quiet, to reflect on things we’ve taken for granted, and to imagine new values and new possibilities. In this sense, it isn’t the enemy, but a teacher, with the potential to deepen us. There are times when we just can’t “think things through” with our rational minds. But when the mind becomes very still and quiet, we achieve an intimacy with ourselves that can’t be found any other way. Quiet, attentive listening opens us to an intuitive understanding of our deeper feelings and needs.

    I found that regular meditation could be very effective in stabilizing moods and achieving emotional balance. One reason is that when we sit still and watch our experience without trying to change it, it becomes clear that every mental state arises and passes away. Nothing is permanent and fixed; no pain—and no happiness—lasts forever. When we come to understand that emotional states come and go like the weather, we begin to be less fearful of our negative emotions. We take them more in stride, and feel less driven to run away from them.

    Another invaluable discovery is that there’s a natural, quiet peace and happiness available to all of us, no matter what the outward circumstances of our lives. Meditation doesn’t produce this happiness; it’s a background state that is always there. But it’s quiet and subtle, and easily drowned out by the mental busyness and agitation of daily life. However, once we make contact with this state of inner calm, it becomes an invaluable refuge in times of stress and difficulty.

    Beginners in meditation often find the practice difficult and challenging at first, and it takes sustained effort and patience to establish the habit. Several things can be helpful:

    1. Meditate with others. Take a meditation class or practice with a group that regularly sits together. Without support from others, it’s almost impossible to establish yourself in regular practice.

    2. Don’t overdo it. Start with just a few minutes daily. If you can begin or end your day with just five minutes of quiet meditation, you’re on your way. Gradually, you can lengthen the time as you acquire the taste for the practice.

    3. Try to meditate in the same place and at the same time every day. If you can, set aside one place in your home that is for meditation and nothing else.

    4. Be patient! Progress in meditation is measured in months and years, not days and weeks. But the good news is that, while the positive effects of meditation develop slowly, they are cumulative and reliable.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit