Depression is so common and so unpleasant that we are surrounded, online and off, with a sea of potential remedies: herbs, pharmaceuticals, therapy, chocolate, and personal wisdom. And then there are people who tell you to “just cheer up”. How annoying, and minimizing, is that? When I’m depressed I want empathy, not glib advice.
Imagine how startling it is to get that pithy message from a person who reflects deeply on the practice of eastern spirituality. An article appearing in Huffington Post on October 27, entitled “Depressed? How to Just Cheer Up,” suggests meditation practice, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Trungpa Rinpoche, really can help us just cheer up.
Liberation from negative thoughts is a shared goal, whether you think of the challenge in spiritual or psychological terms. In the world of western mental health counseling, depression is often treated by finding and testing our unexamined negative beliefs, in a process called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In the world of spirituality, negative thoughts are unwelcome attachments we can choose to simply let go.
What’s the difference? Therapy requires us to sit still, in the company of one another, and focus. The discipline of meditation helps us to sit still, and to become aware of our thoughts as visitors that appear, welcome or unwelcome, without judging them. We do not have to take each one to heart; we become aware that we are more than our thoughts. We can appreciate the present moment, and smell the incense.
The trouble is that many of our disturbing thoughts, released into the cosmos, keep coming back. We have enduring heartaches, resentments, and nightmares; it is possible for them to plague us for years, even if we are more than willing to let them go.
The author of the article, Susan Piver, points out that knowing the back story behind our negative thoughts might be interesting, but still not lift our spirits. And that is the thing most wanted, is it not? Perhaps you’ve endured an unfaithful partner or a tornado or a belief that you are unlovable, or without talent. Insight is wonderful and life changing in the long run, but deep peace – now – is the holy grail.
Letting go of negative or disturbing thoughts is a spiritual practice, because it is grounded in a sense of where meaning lies. With the discipline of letting go of control, for example, comes humility. We were never entirely in control. The spiritual dimension is one of making peace with our place in the universe.
But that awareness does not complete the process of healing; it has only just begun. Here is where my viewpoint may differ from the one attributed to Trungpa Rinpoche. To let go of distress and savor a moment of peace is a healing practice. But healing often requires us to sit with troubling realities, and allow transformation, sometimes within, sometimes without. To stop clinging to toxic thoughts is not necessarily to cheer ourselves up.
Simply noticing that we exist without our negative thoughts is healing. Asking questions about what, within us, keeps producing more, is helpful as well. When we are seeking the path out of depression, the letting go allows peace, here and now. Discovering what belongs in their place, is the vexing part of the work of healing from depression.
Spiritual practice and therapy can both be good companions for this journey. Western therapy is skillful in bringing order to our thoughts, those we know about and those that haunt us from the shadows. Eastern spiritual practice is skillful in noticing the obsessive ways of the thinking self, and noticing its limits, welcoming the parts of us that are simply present to one another. Western therapy is skillful at clarifying social relationships, and taming discord. Eastern spiritual practice is skillful at cultivating empathy. Each benefits from the other.
Depression is not necessarily done with us when we are willing to let it go. But cultivating that willingness is essential. We cannot necessarily heal ourselves by evicting every negative thought; but the willingness to imagine ourselves without them, is a pretty good beginning.