the dharma of depression

“It’s Wednesday afternoon and I am still in bed. I didn’t bother to have breakfast, or brush my teeth. I could go outside for a walk and run an errand, but in total honestly I just couldn’t be bothered.”

That could have been one of my journal entries. If I kept one. My depression and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary this year. But in addition to that, I celebrated my newly gained insights.

For some reason I had led myself to believe that I was a victim. That poor old me would suffer from depression for eternity, and possibly a little more after that. My depression has been caused by a chemical imbalance, which is something I have little control over. However, what I never realized was that I had found a billion ways of not feeling and a thousand more to fortify this idea of “me”.

The habit of depression

When I was looking for information about depression I came across this article from Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.

One of the paragraphs sparked at me:

“According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive—the world we interact with and live in—is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world, like a spell has been put on us by the allure of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, though, we begin to see through that—we are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. Depression, when we work with it, can be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It reminds us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.”

This article came at the right time for me. I was at a point of desperation. I had given all of my previous self-destructive patterns another try. Everything that I had ever done to prevent myself from feeling, in a feeble attempt to feel good and comfortable, because maybe this time it would work, turned once again out to be a total failure. It didn’t work. Au contraire, it made it worse.

At first I thought it was bad news — that there was no hope whatsoever. My inner drama queen was taking the stage, aiming for an Oscar. But then it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, this was an opportunity for me to try taking a left turn for a change. I had the freedom to choose a new way of relating to the situation.


The first thing I had to do was take a step back at look at myself. I created space by distancing myself and I decided to call my depression, and its associated habitual patterns, Frank. I chose this name because I reckoned it was a good time to be honest with myself. Thus Frank became something I could relate to. I was no longer depressed. I was someone who was dealing with depression. A subtle difference. I started to give him space to communicate to me and listened to all the things he wanted to tell me. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Frank was actually not someone I enjoyed listening to. He was patronizing and cruel. He would tell me that my hips were getting too big and that my face was too asymmetrical. I had a funny nose and FYI, I was a failure at everything I did. No one would ever love me thus I would probably end up being a miserable spinster. I would die and I would only be discovered weeks later, half eaten by cats. I imagined I would have at least a dozen of them.

It took me time to figure out what I dreaded most: the fact that Frank was saying these things or the fact that I believed they were true. In retrospect, I would say: the last one. I had heard about this wonderful Shambhala term: Basic Goodness, and after years of struggling and getting angry by even the mention of the word, I thought I could give it a try. Why not? I sat Frank down and told him that we could no longer be friends because I was worth so much more then that. I didn’t really believe it, but I think it sounded convincing. He could still come by for a cup of tea and a cookie but I would no longer tolerate his behavior. That was step one.

Helpful practice

To be able to resist falling into Frank’s trap I would test my thoughts with a practice I found very interesting. The exercise is based on mindfulness of speech. In this situation I would like to see thoughts as non-verbalized speech. It’s easy and astoundingly effective. Here’s what you do:
– Close your eyes and look at the thought(s) that keep repeating again and again.
– Now ask yourself the following question:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

Based on your answers decide if you think it worth your while to keep chasing these thoughts. If they are true, kind, and necessary you could continue following these thoughts. If not, you might want to consider dropping them. I, personally, had to drop almost all of them. This is one of the most valuable things that was ever pointed out to me, and I am grateful for this reminder because it’s like a mental Swiss-Army knife that is at my disposal 24 hours a day—even when I go through customs.

Going to the places that scare you

Most (mild) depressions are usually not caused by a chemical imbalance. They have a different root: not wanting to feel. After a break-up or after graduating, when we experience anxiety, or when something unpleasant happens and we can’t allow ourselves to feel, we become depressed. The nasty thing about depression is that it’s incredibly sticky. It’s like this heavy stone that is stuck in your belly that you can’t move. You don’t want to. When anger arises you most likely want to hit someone or yell all the hurtful words that come to mind and your jaw tightens. Sadness causes tears and makes your body shake while you find yourself gasping for air. Fear makes you shaky and causes you to either run or hide. Emotions come up and leave, they are flowing. Depression doesn’t do anything. It just sits there. Depression is like an overtired 4-year-old past its bedtime. It knows it needs to rest and let all of the impressions sink in but it is too stubborn to move. NO! We would make it so much easier for ourselves if we could just find the courage to stay with our feelings and live through them.

Mind the gap

On the London Underground there are warning signs to make sure no one falls and end up being stuck between the metro and the platform. I like seeing this as a warning for getting stuck. By getting stuck I mean the moments when an emotion or thought arises and I hold on to it for dear life. In Shambhala we are also asked to mind the gaps. Not because we might get stuck but because they can show us that the thing we are stuck to might not be as solid as we think. There is a little bit of space in between everything that arises. By seeing the gaps, be see we can poke little holes in our otherwise solid idea of how things are.

Helpful practice

Something that really helped me was learning to invite whatever was arising and trying to stay with that feeling. I would turn off my computer and switch off my phone. I would make some tea, go for a walk, paint or meditate. When enough space had come in something would break. There would be a gap and from that whatever had been hiding inside would burst out. The complex layers of emotions would come to light. Finally I could let the sadness and loneliness, the frustration about feeling guilty about feeling lonely, and the anger about feeling ashamed about feeling sad go.

This is how you do it:

  •  Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.tonglen
  • Let the question ‘How am I feeling?’ arise.
  • When you have got a clear sense of that feeling ask yourself: where do I feel this in my body? (It could have a clear location, sometimes it has a color or a shape; there is no good or bad)
  • Now pay attention to all the storylines that arise and drop them, go back to the raw feeling.
  • Find a word that describes this feeling best.
  • Ask yourself, if you can say YES to this word, does it resonate?
  • Now let go, go back to your breath and when you feel ready, open your eyes and continue with the rest of your day.

Not just me

Another thing that helped me a lot was the people around me. One Thursday evening I was drinking tea with friends and we talked about what was going on in our lives. Soon my friends started talking about feeling depressed and having anxiety attacks. We started sharing experiences and sharing how we have dealt with our feelings. It was such a relief to know that I am not the only person on this planet who gets a panic attack by the mere thought of someone asking me something silly like: “could you pass me the scissors.” It’s embarrassing to be depressed and anxious. Not being able to remember names and phone numbers really stinks. Every small thing becomes this huge obstacle. As if failing at a simple task such as passing scissors or a knife could result into a massive explosion and cause humanity to be extinct, all because your brain needed an extra second to process the information. It’s as if this god-type person is knocking on your door and asking you if you’d care for a one-way ticket to hell. “Yes, please”, you’d say without thinking, while you actually really want to be heading towards eternal bliss. It’s stressful.

The lesson I learned from this was twofold. The first being that we really are not alone. We all deal with emotions on a daily basis. We all experience depression from time to time. It is incredibly helpful to just talk to someone and feel seen and supported. It’s amazing that people are there to catch you when you fall and to be there for them in return because you know what it’s like. The other thing was that I realized that by doing the practice of sending and taking (Tonglen) my own pain stopped being the biggest problem in the world. I would sit down and bring to mind one of my friends who, too, was suffering from depression. I would rouse the wish for them to be liberated from their pain. I would take in their pain and send them light and space. It was helpful because everything stopped being about poor me. I could take on their pain because I knew what it feels like. I knew the texture and the torment and it no longer scared me. By doing this amazing practice, the depression lost its stickiness and no longer had a hold on me. There was too much space for there to be a solid depression that could stick to anyone.

Helpful practice

Tonglen, and who gives better instruction than Pema Chodron?

The hardest part

I have been going through this process of change for a couple of years. Out of all the seeds that I have sown, little flowers are starting to bloom. With that comes another obstacle. I relate to myself and everything around me from the same perspective. This means that I keep relating to the world as if I am still ‘that girl’ which has nothing to do with how I am now, or who I am now. In my mind I usually still see myself as that depressed, pessimistic, no fun, dreadful human being. While in truth I have discovered that I am also a passionate adventurer, someone who loves people and wants to help in every way she can. I can afford to be generous and delight in playing Secret Santa all year round. I love life and art and I genuinely smile almost every day. I can honestly say that I have become more confident and I occasionally enjoy being me. I no longer need anything or anyone to fix me or make me better. I like myself just the way I am.

I have come to terms with every obstacle, every emotion and every disturbing thought that comes with the deal. It’s really hard to let go of all of those patterns. They will most likely be waiting for me to lose confidence and fall back every second of the day. But through the dharma, through my amazing friends, family and sangha, whom have loved and supported me no matter what, and through meditation, I have grown stronger. For that I am eternally grateful. I learned to appreciate the gaps. I have learned the hard way what it means to be a human being. I know my ‘goodness’ and my ‘badness’ and know that I am neither really. I still get caught but whenever I do I can have a sense of humor, shrug my shoulders, laugh and silently mumble: “Yeah, you got me this time.”

10665093_751343491567479_7546614131427834288_nRianne Pelleboer is a writer and poet from the Netherlands. She’s in her final year of Journalism school and is currently doing research on Journalistic Ethics. In addition she has started exploring the marked and working on what she hopes to be a Buddhist advice for a student life. Even though she had been meditating for several years it wasn’t until 2010 that she became part of the Shambhala Sangha. Ever since, she walked the path with the speed of light and just ‘graduated’ from Sacred World Assembly last summer. She has been a guide for several years and recently started teaching at two of her local centers.