How does a meditator deal with episodes of major depression?
by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
The powerful support of a practitioner of the buddhadharma is refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is important to have a connection to these three.
One can experience refuge in the Buddha as a changeless, single-faced, reliable connection that is always available and is an inexhaustible treasure. The truth is always to be found here. With the second support, the dharma, we have faith and trust in the teachings and the knowledge we have received. Finally, there is much support in our connection to the sangha, the warmth of those who dedicate their practice to the benefit of others.
We have the notion of refuge because as sentient beings we suffer and need help. Depression is a time when one can experience a strong sense of being cut off, disconnected, and miserable. If you are a practitioner going through such difficulty, it is important to know this is not a personal failure. Don’t get caught in the trap of feeling guilty or of thinking you have no value. That only adds suffering to the suffering that is part of the human condition.
At these times, it is important to trust in the power of the three jewels, the foundation of refuge. The familiar analogy is that when the weather is cloudy and stormy, you trust that the sun is still there, shining in a clear open sky. Even if this is not your experience in the moment, you still know the general direction of the sky, and even if you cannot see the sun, you know it is there. Similarly, you can trust that your suffering is impermanent.
In the West, some people come to the study and practice of Buddhism through a sense of dissatisfaction with their own beliefs and culture. Buddhism can seem attractive because it is intellectually rich. Some people engage with the teachings with more of an intellectual understanding than experiential depth. Very often what is missing is this experiential trust in the refuge and the inner experiences that result from this. When depression comes, it is not easy to rely on a refuge that is an intellectual construct and not deeply rooted in experience.
In everyday life, even when we are feeling well, aside from things that need to be done, like paying taxes and bills, taking care of children, and eating food, there are a lot of things that do not have to be done. Sometimes we commit to doing things based on temporary excitement without knowing what it means for the long term, and we exhaust ourselves through engagement in unfulfilling tasks. Even within the supposed refuge of your own home, you can feel your house is calling you to do something — there are dishes to wash, clothes to fold, floors to vacuum. And there are endless connections to be maintained through returning phone calls and email, not to mention our habits of endless searching in cyberspace. Sometimes there are things we need to do, but many times our doing masks an underlying restlessness. From the point of view of meditation practice, we have lost the abiding, or resting, quality. We have lost our connection to the inner refuge.
What is this inner refuge that is our protection in times of difficulty? Look inward and become aware of the stillness of the body, the silence of the inner speech, and the spaciousness of the mind. As we draw our attention to these three places, we discover the ground of being, or unbounded spaciousness, and the awareness that connects us to this ground, along with the warmth that genuinely arises from this connection. So I prescribe three “pills” to my students — stillness of the body, silence of inner speech, and spaciousness of mind — as a means to connect with the inner refuge and as a support for those suffering with depression. Take these three pills as often as you are able, day and night; they have no negative side effects. Take them the moment you feel overwhelmed or ungrounded. We need something we can immediately turn toward when we are unsettled.
Sometimes depression is so pervasive that we are not able to get out of bed. At times like this, open a window to experience fresh air and look out and gaze at the sky and the light. Try to connect with inner refuge through this exposure to the outer sky and light. That might open the door of spaciousness for you. Rest, with your eyes open, for five or ten minutes at a time, simply watching the sky and light and not doing anything else, such as looking at the overwhelming things in your house that need to be taken care of. Instead of looking at your kitchen, which is a mess, rest your eyes on the sky and the light as a support for connecting with inner spaciousness. Remember that your true nature is open and clear like the sky and is only temporarily obscured by the clouds of anxiety and depression.
As a practitioner, it is most important to develop trust in yourself and your ability to experience the inner refuge. The three pills are an experiential means of coming to know and trust yourself, and to connect again and again with your true nature, your buddhanature. Through becoming increasingly familiar with the inner refuge, we interrupt our patterns of anxiety and can recognise a true sense of inner home. We encounter the Buddha within. While this dharma advice is not meant as a substitute for proper medical or therapeutic attention, the awareness of one’s nature is ultimately the light that will clear the darkness of depression.