On Mindfulness and Depression (or, a Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had)

So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m off my meds, and have been for several weeks now. I didn’t go off lightly, and I didn’t go off without a plan, but from the moment I started taking meds I planned to go off them. And though I accept that I may, in fact, need the brain pills for the rest of my life, I don’t want to need them, and want to give myself a chance at being normal without them. Which is to say that going off them is a thing I view as an experiment, more than a man-I’m-glad-that’s-over step into a new chapter.

Several weeks in, though, I’ve met my first challenge: last night, for whatever reason, I felt the chasm yawning open beneath my feet, felt the old familiar monster beckoning me into the dark. True to form, I couldn’t point to what was causing it; I was fine one moment and overcome the next, the way a shadow slips, without notice, into existence when the clouds part and the sun shines down. Maybe it was the novel work I’d failed to get done over the last few days (even though my days of late have been extremely productive). Maybe it was the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale we’ve been watching, poisoning my thoughts and my outlook. (Good TV, but man is it bleak.) Who knows.

Point is, the anxiety / depression / spiritual dread was there, unmistakably so, and I felt its pull. Walked right up to the edge, peered down into the dark, saw it there. Not terrifying, not menacing, just dark and vast and empty, like the ocean at night. And the messed up thing? I wanted to dive in.

Here’s where I need a detour.

One of my fascinations (I know, I know, add it to the list) of the last couple of years has been mindfulness. And it’s one of those fascinations where, like, I admire it at a distance, the way you admired your first crush from across the lunchroom but never actually had any plan for approaching them, let alone speaking to them. I haven’t done any real reading on mindfulness specifically, in other words, only brushed up against it in passing, thought “wow, that looks awesome, I should learn more about it,” and moved on knowing just enough to get me into trouble (as I do with so many other things in this life).

What I know about it is this: mindfulness is a superpower. And I say that not to exaggerate and overstate but to communicate how powerful it actually seems to be.

To fully explain THAT, I need another detour.

A fact of this life is: we’re ruled by our emotions. Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked details this a lot better than I can, but essentially we have two brains: the rational brain and the emotional brain. We like to think that the rational brain drives the bus, but it doesn’t. Our emotional side drives, and it sometimes allows itself to be influenced by the rational side.

Think about the last time you were angry, and said or did something offhanded or rude to somebody you care about. Was that you doing or saying the awful thing? Well, yes, but it certainly wasn’t a rational, clearly thinking you. The rational, clearly thinking part of you knows that the things you do have consequences, and it will keep you from doing those things that have unfortunate consequences. Like shouting at your loved one. You wouldn’t do that normally, but you were angry, and it just came out. The Pixar film Inside Out represents this pretty clearly, come to think of it. The little girl’s emotions take turns behind the steering wheel, and when Anger or Sadness is driving, well, she acts accordingly. (For that matter, Intellect and Rationality are characters not appearing in Inside Out. Pixar is cleverer than we even realized.)

Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling in Inside Out (2015)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that these characters are property of Pixar, not of me.

Detour within detour over, let’s circle back to mindfulness-as-superpower. Mindfulness, as I understand it (and let me fully disclaim once again that I’m not an expert and don’t fully understand it), is simply the ongoing practice of examining what’s in your own head. Not trying to “fix” what’s in there, just noticing it. Moment to moment, turn a magnifying glass inward, see what’s in there.

Consider: A Jerk cuts you off in traffic, your blood pressure rises, maybe you pound the steering wheel or wave your hands at said jerk in socially unacceptable gestures, probably a few words come out of your mouth that wouldn’t come out in front of, say, your grandmother. Mindfulness says, pause, examine. That’s anger, your thinking brain will tell you. Anger is currently driving your bus.

Or: You’re at work, plugging away at a project you’re behind on, and a friend pops in, invites you to lunch. “I don’t have time,” you snap, probably more forcefully than you should, and the friend skulks away, and maybe you feel worse. If you can force yourself to be mindful in this moment, you do the pause and examine thing. That’s frustration, you realize. You’re snapping at your friend because you’re frustrated about work. Frustration is driving your bus.

Needless to say, the practice is difficult, especially when you need it most. But here’s why it’s worth practicing it (and why I am practicing it — in fits and starts and with various levels of success, but still, that’s why they call it “practice”): because emotions are no more material than fog, than a shadow, than the stinky aroma of last night’s leftovers that you forgot to put in the refrigerator. (Let’s just stick with the shadow metaphor.) The moment you turn a light on a shadow, it disappears. It simply evaporates; it cannot exist where there is light. Emotions do the same thing when faced with the harsh light of rationality.

What that means — and what I’ve experienced — is that the realization that emotion is in the driver’s seat kicks emotion out of the driver’s seat. The moment you can notice, when the jerk cuts you off in traffic, this is anger, you’re angry and that’s why you’re shouting and swearing, it suddenly feels very silly to continue shouting and swearing. Turn the floodlamp of mindfulness on the shadow of anger (or frustration, or disappointment, or whatever), and the shadow boils away. It may not fix the injustice — you still got cut off, after all — but it puts control back in your hands.

This is the superpower. If you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions in a world where everybody is ruled by their emotions, then you can act with a clarity that is denied to most people most of the time. You can literally change the way you feel just by noticing you’re feeling a way that you really rather wouldn’t.

For a bit more reference, Sam Harris also has a lot to say about this topic, though I couldn’t point you to any one particular clip or passage in particular. But this one looks good:

And here’s where we close the loop and I bring us all the way back (finally!) to myself, last night, standing on the edge of that cliff, feeling the pull of those depressive impulses, or if you like, feeling myself sliding down a crumbling dirt hillside toward the crevasse. Not thinking about the fact that I’m off my meds and that may be playing a role, not analyzing why I felt so crummy, just feeling bad and, perversely, thinking it was probably going to get worse, so why fight it?

Then: mindfulness.

This is depression, said the voice of rationality. For whatever reason, you’re feeling like sh*t. Depression is driving the bus right now. And, poof. I didn’t magically feel better, but the spiral stopped. I stepped back from the edge, I stopped sliding down the hillside. And I went to sleep thinking that was weird, I wonder what brought that on instead of thinking I feel sh*tty and everything is sh*tty and tomorrow’s probably gonna feel sh*tty too.

And I feel good this morning. Not great. I can still feel last night’s funk around the edges, but depression is not driving my bus. Restlessness is, a little bit, because I’d love to get out and do something but it’s too flipping hot. But so is contentedness, because I didn’t let myself fall into the abyss, and instead I’m writing (always a good thing) and my kids are on the sofa watching a movie together and being adorable, and I’m happy to let that feeling drive the bus for a while.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all. For depression especially, when you’re in the abyss, thinking isn’t gonna save you. But for the day-to-day struggles, when you feel yourself sliding? Mindfulness really is a superpower.

About Pavowski

I am a teacher, runner, father, and husband. I am an author-in-progress. I know just enough about a lot of things to get me into a lot of trouble. View all posts by Pavowski

6 responses to “On Mindfulness and Depression (or, a Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had)

  • Lyssandra Allen

    I’ve been “working” on mindfulness in much the same fashion for the past very long while, mostly in regards to being a calmer person behind the wheel. As you say, it’s not perfect, but it does get more…. habitual? Practiced? Either way, glad to hear you were able to use it and make the evening a bit better for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pavowski

      It definitely takes practice, and behind the wheel is both an easy way to practice it and a stark way to see it at work. I can almost feel my blood pressure dropping.

      Like

  • Glen available

    Maybe Star Trek’s Mr Spock really was onto something with his level-headed ’emotions are for blockheads and fleabrains’ mantra.

    Liked by 2 people

  • joannereedauthor

    Interesting post. There is ‘happiness’ around us everyday – like your kids watching tv – and I like how you describe using mindfullness to allow you to be triggered by this, but to repress the trigger for negative events.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pavowski

      Allowing oneself to be triggered isn’t necessarily the way I thought about it — I think the act of being triggered is pretty much out of our control — but I can see how that might be helpful.

      Actually, I think about the thought experiment of the frog in the boiling water. The frog doesn’t much think about where he is, he just reacts. Mindfulness is thinking before you react. It’s the frog pausing and saying, “wait a minute. This water is way hotter than it used to be. Do I actually want to be here?”

      That may not be a perfect comparison either, come to think of it, but I do like frogs.

      Like

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