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Tag Archives: depression

i’m rewiring my brain

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For much of life my mind has tilted toward darkness. Pharmaceutical cocktails, endless psychotherapy, and years of meditation practice have helped reset my mood thermometer. But the cliff’s edge is narrow and the tiniest moment of inattention can cause my mind to slide.

Drawing on research in social psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, Hanson and Mendius report that the brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information and that when an event is flagged as negative, the brain (in the hippocampus) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. In short, the brain has a built-in negativity bias that primes us for avoidance.

It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles (p.42).

Good to hear that being attracted to negativity and tending towards depression is “not my fault,” a view long held by my biased mind (and, I suspect, by people unfamiliar with depression). The remedy, put forward by meditation teachers and supported by findings in brain research, centers on–

  • not suppressing negative experiences but to
  • welcome them as part of being human and to
  • make an active effort to internalize positive experiences to heal negative ones.

I’ve recently begun an experiment on neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to learn and change itself. “Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole,” Hanson and Mendius claim. “Consequently, positive feelings have far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system … [and] a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress” (p. 75).

In this experiment I’m spending extra time with positive emotions. On Monday, for instance, after an hour’s workout, I sat a log in the sun, bathing in that marvellous sense of wellbeing brought on by endorphins, sinking my awareness deep inside my body, registering sensations of happiness, presence, and joy. The theory I’m testing is that positive experiences help reprogram the brain — not by wiping out negative memories, but by superimposing or counter-balancing them with positive ones.

source: Hanson, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger.


some days are like this

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As I wake this morning, nothing much lights up. Yes, there’s the pale sun, and odd bird sounds, and a delivery truck rumbling past the house. There’s awareness, faintly, of entering another day. Instantly there are thoughts of this obligation and that, and of things to get done. In short, the usual mish-mash at the edge of nightmares. 

For one with a long history of sliding into greyness, it takes an extra effort to come into the light. So I turn to the nearest object, my hand. Looking closely, I marvel at this appendage, its contours and texture. Been there all those years, functioning without my say-so. Brown spots, wrinkles, tendons, veins, spare skin, old scars, faint hair. Turning palm upward, seeing lines without knowing their gypsy meanings. Miraculously, dark thoughts — like thunder clouds — drift away unaided, revealing for split moments just this.  

image: “Hände des 12jährigen Christus” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), German painter, printmaker, mathematician, engraver.

just a breath away

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Just back from a weekend at the monastery, where I sat on a cushion or chair for hours, didn’t speak to anyone, helped in the kitchen, ate meals out of wooden bowls, chanted in English, Pali, and Japanese, woke up around 4 am and didn’t get to bed till close to 10 at night.

For the first ten hours of that I was busy daydreaming, fantasizing, fabricating, worrying, and watching my mind doing useless acrobatics. Then late at night, well past worry about stiff legs and aching back, something happened, if even for a moment. For the duration of several breaths I sank into a vivid awareness of my physical body, followed each breath into the fibre of my being, noted tense spots and soft areas, letting go – o miracle – of wandering thoughts; sank past wanting to get anywhere, greeted sensations and feelings as they passed by, fell deeper and deeper into successive waves of being-alive, witnessing nothingness while being fully awake.

I came back to “normal,” back to wandering mind and obscured awareness. That’s to be expected. Yet a full day later I remain refreshed by the realization that light resides within darkness. Nothing profound perhaps — except that for someone prone to depressive swings, welcome evidence of spaciousness residing a mere breath-length away from everyday chaos.



oscillating [to swing like a pendulum]

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The last few days have been difficult. After months of equanimity, the stale taste of depression had returned. Low energy, lack of focus, no desire to tackle even the most mundane projects. Things were supposed to improve, I complained. My GP and I had recently cut back on SSRI meds, trusting that a cocktail of meditation practice, volunteer work, loving friends, and restored libido would see me through.

What’s going on here? What made me think I was sliding back into darkness … oscillating between opposites: good or bad, sad or happy, liberated or entangled? This time I caught myself in mid-swing. Half-way through last night’s sitting, I opened my mouth to offer words of encouragement and out came Leonard Cohen’s:

Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything. 

Forget your perfect offering, I repeated. Offer what you can, to the best of your capability. Accept what is given and delight in it. Welcome whatever arises in your heart-mind-body. Take a break from wishful thinking. Nothing is perfect. Everything changes. You are as perfect as can be. You’re not a self-improvement project.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

With these additional lines, Mr. Cohen — himself a former Zen monk — points to the bigger picture: Yes, there are still bells to be rung, still much to do to reduce suffering in our everyday, still hope, still people ready to be of service. And those cracks, well, they’re not flaws: their purpose is to illuminate the path of your unfolding.

lyrics: “Anthem” at; to listen click hereimage: Leonard Cohen self-portrait.


my so-called depression

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I’ve been subject to a mental disorder called depression for much of my adult life. First (clumsily) diagnosed 38 years ago — after repeatedly falling asleep at my desk, feeling listless and hopeless for long stretches of time, getting married and separated in the span of a year, quitting a cushy teaching job, and flirting with ways to end it all — I’ve had my share of psychotherapy and little white pills.

And I’ve been getting better. The last phase occurred at the outset of deep grief following the abrupt ending of a relationship three years ago. Before and since then, the closest I’ve come to living in darkness have been short bouts of gloom rarely lasting more than a few days. Then this morning, out of the blue, another bout. Blue because I spent the morning working out under sunny skies at the beach, happy and healthy, followed by cheerful encounters at my café, then home … and collapse into food bingeing and hours of mid-day sleep filled with nightmarish dreams.

Waking up at 8 pm I resolved to investigate. What is this, I ask — not why. Why, I find, leads to brainy explanations, assumed causes, and more questions; What, in contrast, opens to the body’s inherent wisdom. Sitting quietly at the edge of my bed, I scan my body up and down, mindful to stay clear of the automatic “Merde, not depressed again!” A blog reader’s “are you ok” query spurs me on.

Soon “sadness” makes itself known in the form of a heavy heart and burdened shoulders. Two women have entered my life during the last week, both struggling with impending death after long illnesses, both inviting me, in their fashion, to accompany them on their journey. Ah! Compassion, from Latin com+pati, suffering together.

image: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Old man in sorrow (1890). Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, Netherlands.



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Following the theme of Saturday’s post, I continue to marvel at this current state of well-being. Out of habit, I wait for the other shoe to drop: for depression to descend, boredom to return, and doubts to run the show once more — because that’s familiar, that how it’s been for most of my adult life. “For some of us,” writes Joyce Frazee*,

“it takes courage just to live our daily lives. Every day we awaken to face the demons of our lives: perfectionism, guilt, avoidance, shame, despair, and failure. Time passes and we become skilful at living, despite a constant awareness that these demons are draining our energy, limiting our joy and freedom, and, in essence, preventing us from experiencing the fullness of life.”

So what happens when a man who, after years of such a roller-coaster existence, notices that the swirling diminishes enough for him to discern patterns of soothing colours and stretches of calmly rolling waves? His vocabulary proves inadequate as he scrambles for words to describe what he sees, feels, and senses. In the market place he encounters people of like mind, making him wonder where they‘ve been all his life. Pressed to eloquate his amazement, he borrows from poets and mystics and goes on about the heart and the beauty of everything. And always, as long as he remembers to go there, he finds refuge in the silence of the next heartbeat.

*Joyce Frazee was a gifted therapist and teacher who trained with Fritz Perls, creator of Gestalt Therapy. I participated in one of her workshop at Esalen and briefly saw her as a private client; she died in 2002. I found this quote in a course description.


the forces of dark and light

For 38 years I have lived with a depressive disorder. It’s never been bad enough for institutional admission or attempts at suicide, but severe enough to cause deep misery for days on end. No hope, no light, no desire to go on … certainly more than “being down” and “having a bad day” (as well-meaning voices suggest), nor something to “snap out off” or “get over with.” During such bouts, I’m not easy company and, on occasion and with impatience, people close-by have called me “moody” and “self-absorbed;’ others have given me a wide berth (fearing contamination?).

Over time I’ve tried every therapeutic approach under the sun (short of a lobotomy), driven by the belief that it was either my fault or something fixable if only I’d tried hard enough. I gained some valuable insights into my emotional make-up along the way, even took a degree in counselling without wanting to practice it on others, but depression continued to keep a tight lid on my joie de vivre.

I resisted medication for years until my GP persuaded me with the argument that patients with chronic illnesses (such as diabetes) take theirs as a matter of course–without having to hide the fact. As a result of a steady low-dose I can now experience, for the first time in memory, a sense of well-being and wholeness. Mood storms have become waves, with only occasional flare-ups; side effects of a lowered libido and weight gain are part of the deal. A sustained spiritual practice, including meditation and being of service, contributes to calmer seas within. It makes sense to live alone.

In this context, one of the shining lights has been Parker J. Palmer, a man of Quaker sensibilities and a pioneer in bringing spirituality into the mainstream of education. During an interview he was asked: How does depression affect the way you are today?

What I learned during depression is that the faculties I had usually depended upon were useless. My intellect was useless—this was not something you can think your way out of. My emotions were dead. Depression is not feeling really, really bad; it’s really feeling nothing at all. That’s what’s frightening about it: it’s a void, an emptiness. My ego was shattered, so there’s no ego strength to pull you through. And my will was nonexistent, except for putting one foot in front of the other very slowly to try to start walking into a day. Intellect, emotions, ego and will are the things we normally count on, but I couldn’t count on them when I was in deep depression.  . . .

In terms of the larger impact or additional impact of depression, you learn that you have in yourself not only the forces of light and life, but also the forces of darkness and death, and that’s an important thing to know. Each of us contains multitudes. And if we walk around thinking “I am only light and life, and it’s those [other] folks who are creating the darkness and death,” we start engaging in enemy-making, and are drawn inevitably, I think, towards some form of violence. Which is really about our refusal to embrace and acknowledge those forces in ourselves. . . .

To read the interview in full, click here. images: (top): “On the threshold of eternity,” oil on canvas, painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in the last year of his life; (bottom):