As I have written often, the essential nature of our humanity comes from our consciousness of self. From this faculty we immediately are confronted by two worlds.
The first is the world “out there”, the physical world of objects, space, matter and other beings.
The second is the world we are aware of within ourselves, the rich brocade of thoughts, feelings, dreams and imaginations.
The good Dr Phil often asks audiences which of these two worlds is the most important. With little hesitation most people will nominate it is their interior world which is of most importance, and of course that is true. But our actions and behaviours often indicate otherwise. For many of us, as William Wordsworth stated in his famous sonnet, “The world is too much with us.” We get angry when things don’t go our way. We get sad when someone close to us moves away. We suffer envy when our next-door neighbour buys a new car. We feel guilty when we forgot our spouse’s birthday. These responses in Buddhism are called afflictive emotions.
The truly contented person has their internal house in order and is little touched by the outside world. This is not to say they remain untouched by the exigencies of the external world. It is just they are able to notice their emotional responses and put them aside.
Most people identify with such emotions. They say “I am angry” or “I am sad.”
Buddhist training allows us to become aware of the traffic of the mind without identifying with it. Those who have mastered these techniques might think to themselves, “I notice that some sadness is arising. I will just observe it for a while and it will pass.” And of course it does.
When the mind is so trained there is a gap between some influence from the outside and the arising of an emotional response that the non-adept identifies with. Our challenge is to get into this gap and utilize it to fashion our desired response rather than automatically taking on the emotion.
Again the good Dr Phil tells us that psychological maturity comes when we are able “to know ourselves, accept ourselves and then forget ourselves.” This seems such a simple formula, but it is so insightful.
When I work with my coaching clients on their personal well-being I often ask them to think of times when they felt happy and contented. Then I say, “At that time I bet you were not thinking about yourself!” Most will agree. Self-obsession deprives us of serenity and well-being.
People who are depressed are generally self-obsessed. Now some might take exception to this statement. Normally we equate self-obsession with narcissistic people with conflated egos. Such people strive to portray themselves not as they are but as they wish to be seen in the world.
On the other hand people who are depressed are often largely good people who, through no fault of their own, have come to see themselves poorly. They dwell on their supposed faults and despair of ever being better. They ruminate on their shortcomings, going over and over in their minds their supposed misdemeanours and failings.
Daniel Goleman writes:
“In short, self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”
As I mentioned above meditation practice improves our awareness. But it does far more than this. It allows us to quieten the self-talk that continually floods our mind. For depressed people this rumination is largely negative and destructive. Meditation can help provide respite from this ongoing self-torture.
Those who are depressed are inherently pessimistic. When a more optimistic person suffers a setback they will readily mount psychological defenses. They will rationalise to themselves why the problem is temporary and restricted to few areas of their live. For example they might think to themselves:
“I really blew that presentation today. That’s a shame because I’m normally pretty good at that stuff. But the data that Peter gave me for it wasn’t really up to scratch. I’ll need to talk to him about doing more to help. I won’t get too down on myself because the presentation I did last Thursday went really well.”
A depressed person in the same circumstances will think to themselves:
“My presentation today was a real disaster. I am hopeless at this. I will never be any good at it.”
So what can help here? We need depressed people to be able to:
1. Develop strategies to mount psychological defenses. Here I would recommend reading Martin Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism”.
2. Learn to disidentify with negative emotions. This comes from cultivating awareness. Meditation practices are useful in this regard.
3. Reduce negative rumination. Meditation can assist here as well.
4. Break out of the downward spiral of self-obsession. Developing your altruistic tendencies seems to be beneficial. Again I would suggest you read Matthieu Ricard’s marvellous book “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” to help in this regard. I saw him at a conference a year or two ago and he led a workshop on altruism and suggested he was working on a book on the subject. He is a truly marvellous teacher.
So here are a few thoughts about how one might ameliorate depression. It might sound defeatist but I suspect that depression has no permanent or complete is cure as such. Depression seems to me to be initiated from a genetic platform and often socialised by the behaviours of significant others early in our lives with the same predicament. Yet on the positive side I am sure those suffering from depression can have their symptoms ameliorated and their lives significantly enhanced by the application of the above principles.
My little book “Froth and Goblets” is a parable that seeks to help those with depression find some relief from their affliction by the use of Buddhist principles. Some of the above material is elaborated on in the book.
I am sure there are no magic answers but my understanding of the human mind would lead me to believe that the processes that the Buddhist sage Augustus used to help the princess Naomi in this text could be useful to others as well.
My publisher has established a Facebook Page for the book. I would appreciate it if you could take a quick look at the page and comment. It would be even nicer if you opted to “like” it as that will help my publicity campaign.