A Mindful Approach to Depression

“What characterizes despair is just this — that it is ignorant of being despair.” -Kierkegaard

Depression has woven its way in and out of my experience for years. My own struggles and those of family, friends, clients, and my professional studies have led me to make an important distinction when dealing with depression. One can be free from depression without being free from sadness and the beautiful and complex depth of human pain. Sadness can be restorative, lead to creative expression, new ways of thinking and new depths of compassion. Jung knew that by avoiding negative emotions, we repress our shadow self. The shadow will inevitably emerge in patterns of unconscious behavior and compulsion. We can embrace our shadow and the depth of our own pain without spiraling into depression.

Depression is triggered by identification with negative thoughts; the self feels completely immersed and unable to find perspective. The depression feels eternal, the sufferer cannot fathom a state outside of it. When looking into the past or future at happy state, one distrusts it, thinking that the depressed state always lies hidden beneath and is the true state of things. To release this state, we must approach ourselves with absolute kindness. When we respond to our own depression with derision, guilt, or criticism, we only add fuel to the negative cycle of thoughts. The first step is to approach the fact that we are depressed with acceptance and compassion. Paradoxically, only through acceptance of the present are we able to move into a new state of being. Your depressed mind will reject compassion, it will reject your desire to be mindful of it. Be mindful of the rejection. It does not matter what you start to think or feel, let it out, acknowledge it, accept it. If you start to think, “I cannot accept this,” accept your non-acceptance.

As you begin to develop non-judgmental, kind awareness of your depressed state, you will slowly begin to move outside of your identification with it. You will probably be amazed at the subtle judgments that you are constantly making of yourself and of your own condition. The unceasing critic does not want to be recognized,  it wants to distract you from your real emotions. As you become aware of your critic, you might become angry at it for keeping you in the negative spiral. Yet, remember to have kindness even for the critic, it is serving its purpose, only acting out of pain and ignorance. If we start judging the judge, the cycle will just repeat. The more we approach ourselves with compassion, the more we can become liberated from any one state of being. Rather than being trapped in depression, we can experience sadness fully and deeply and appreciate its transformative power and ability to unite us with others in compassion. Sadness is not an evil, without the ability to feel pain we would not be human. Sadness, like any state of being, is temporary and part of life’s eternal ebb and flow.


Assailed by afflictions, we discover Dharma
And find the way to liberation. Thank you, evil forces!

When sorrows invade the mind, we discover Dharma
And find lasting happiness. Thank you, sorrows!

Through harm caused by spirits we discover Dharma
And find fearlessness. Thank you, ghosts and demons!

Through people’s hate we discover Dharma
And find benefits and happiness. Thank you, those who hate us!

Through cruel adversity, we discover Dharma
And find the unchanging way. Thank you, adversity!

Through being impelled to by others, we discover Dharma
And find the essential meaning. Thank you, all who drive us on!

We dedicate our merit to you all, to repay your kindness.

Gyalwa Longchenpa

-Link to a good Breathing Meditation


Embodied Cognition

Chronesthesia, the mental ability to travel in time, to relive past experiences and imagine future experiences, supposedly sets humans apart from animals. But a new study, also mentioned this week in the New York Times, finds that this ‘mind travel’ is actually intertwined with physical experience. For example: researchers found that subjects holding hot coffee were more likely to judge someone as “warm” then when holding a cold beverage, and heavy items were judged as more important than lighter ones. Similarly, the New York Times author writes about how researchers tied a subject’s memory of social acceptance to a warmer room temperature. The physical context affected the judgments of the research subjects; hence the article’s phrase “embodied cognition.”

One of the philosophical impacts of this, though not novel, is that perception of reality is partly determined by the context of the subject. The mind is embedded within a physical environment. Abstraction itself becomes more complex in a world without the mind-body duality. This idea, in my life, has affected how I view psychology and more specifically in my work, how I view mental illness.

The mind-in-environment approach is one of the reasons I was drawn to social work practice. Standard psychological assessment looks at the client as though in a vacuum. Many social workers, on the contrary, utilize an idea called Bio-Ecological Systems Theory when assessing a client.  There are five levels taken into account:

  1. Microsystem: Immediate environments
  2. Mesosystem: The connections between immediate environments
  3. Exosystem: External environmental settings
  4. Macrosystem: The wider cultural context 
  5. Chronosystem: The evolving patterns changes and events over the life course.

The individual is affected by a complex array of influences, and cannot be isolated. This approach dramatically changes how a practitioner views mental illness. Rather than looking at something as ‘all in the mind,’ we must take a more holistic approach and include body, environment, culture, time, etc. Cause and effect, responsibility and identity become more difficult to pin down in a world where everything is part of an interconnected web. This may be hard to grasp in the American psyche, where the individual is expected to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps.’ Such a complex web can be daunting, but it also means that the world is resting on many shoulders and not just our own.

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