I experimented with meditation as a way of managing chronic low-level depression and to help manage the consequent irritability. It was valuable help, but as a Westerner I needed more than Oriental spiritualism. I got to the point with meditation of: “OK, so what do I do with it, how do I use it?” It allowed me to start functioning again, and get away from the darker thoughts.
I started to read about the neuroscience around depression, and how our natural responses so easily spiral downwards out of control. I was encouraged that even with advancing age the brain continues to make new connections, and can change behaviour as it learns new ways of responding to stimuli. Ruby Wax’s Sane New World was a valuable insight, and a good read.
I have now taken my meditation practice much more towards the scientifically supported western approach of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which seeks to help those suffering from stress, anxiety and depression from the effects of our automatic responses. By taking a mindful attitude to my thoughts and feelings, through mindfulness practice (both daily, and occasional), I can usually maintain myself in a better place mentally, and see the darkening clouds in time to mitigate potential depressive episodes. They are now more likely to be days of feeling low, rather being completely dysfunctional.
But it is not just about managing depression. It means I take a much healthier approach to life and its stresses in general. Being in the moment is not about accepting whatever life throws at me, it is about recognising that I cannot change NOW. It does not mean I cannot take actions that seek to change the future, but I can do so at a time and place which is appropriate. I avoid fighting unnecessary mental battles by choosing when and where to do so, and so avoid ongoing rumination, worrying about what has passed or about what might, but probably won’t, happen in the future.
From time to time I surprise myself as I find myself being mindful in everyday life. A mood comes over me, I recognise it, realise it is not helpful or well-founded and just let it drift away, as if on the wind, almost like a soap bubble or autumn leaves in the breeze. Perhaps while doing one thing, thoughts about an unrelated matter can come to my mind but I now mindfully recognise that the time is not appropriate, that they are a distraction and let them go so I can concentrate on the matter in hand. However I do still need to find a 15 second breathing space before dealing with certain facets of everyday life, like call centres! That said, my anger and frustration is much better controlled than it once was.
Mindfulness is not just for those with mental health challenges: it is for everyone. Evolutionary progress is slow, and has been outstripped by the speed of change in society. 200 years ago (a blink in evolutionary terms) we were still mostly farmers, governed by the sun and the seasons. Our minds have not evolved to cope with this rapid change of circumstances, so we need to actively train our mental responses in order to do so. This is where mindfulness in the form of MBCT is so useful: it enables us to help our individual minds evolve. To work effectively mindfulness needs constant practice, but occasional slippage can be recovered by returning to frequent, but not time consuming, practice. I adopt a more formal approach to mindfulness, others more informal, but still using the precepts to manage the effects on them of the pressures of everyday life.
Three years on I would not give up my mindfulness practice. It is not a panacea, or a cure. For me it is an effective way of managing an otherwise difficult long term condition.