I began a solid meditation practice five years ago and I’ve learned a lot about meditation since. Five years in and I’m still bad at meditation. But I learned why - and this why is more important than meditation itself, in my own humble opinion.
Meditation as we know it is to some degree a forceful act. Oh dear god he said what? Hear me out. I find that the mind is rather intelligent and self-correcting on its own. When we are tired, we sleep. When we are hungry, we eat. When we are hungry and don’t have food, the mind automatically starts thinking about where to get food. I find that depression is generally something that starts for a reason. It’s the mind stuck deeply in a hopeless state because it believes that it has no way to improve its situation - learned helplessness. Anxiety is a fear that comes as the mind anticipates something. Anxious depression is a problem solving state where the mind is stuck in problem solving mode, repeatedly trying to think its way out of the present situation. It’s intensely painful to be stuck too long in this problem solving state.
So meditation is a logical solution to both depression and anxiety in that it helps break this cycle of problem solving or helplessness by intentionally letting go and focusing on the present. The here and now are real. The emotions and sensations you are perceiving now are real. These are the only things you can know for sure. Everything else is an abstraction. The future is not certain - it is an abstraction - an idea of what the mind suspects will come. The past is an abstraction - an idea the mind holds about what events it has witnessed. It could be wrong - details can be forgotten, memories can be fabricated. But the present moment is undeniably real. Pleasure is real. Pain is real. Your interpretation of the present could be false, but the sensations you feel are impossible to deny.
And so, meditation is no doubt an excellent way to allow the mind to focus on what is real and let go, at least temporarily, of the constant stream of thoughts and anxieties that we experience. But it’s an intentional act; an interception. It is a decision to stop and listen.
And thus, what I’ve discovered about meditation is that while it is a decent tool for becoming more present, it is a far better tool for assessing the state of your life. To be short, I don’t find meditation to be especially useful in controlling the mind but I find it incredibly useful in listening to the mind.
Meditating is a better tool for analysis than a tool for change. In the hardest parts of my life or the parts where I was dealing with the most anxiety and depression, meditation was difficult and my mind was loud. And meditation surely helped, a little, but ultimately the only thing that solved my problems was changing my life situation. When I was in university I went through a deep depression. I tried meditation… it helped a little but but didn’t seem to get to the source of the depression. Then I started listening to the depression more closely and realized that there was nothing wrong with my brain and my problem was only that I hated school and was getting a degree for any reason but my own drive and motivation. So I left school and got a job. Overnight my depression went away and meditation became easy. My mind felt secure and stable in life and as a result, the anxious thoughts that made meditation so difficult were gone.
And so, I’ve found that the real cure to depression is to solve the actual circumstance in life that is causing it. If it’s unsolvable, then there is no option left but to accept and appreciate the circumstance. These are the two and only two ways out of depression. And so meditation is a useful tool in learning if you are on the right path in life. If it is difficult and the mind resists, try to listen to your thoughts and understand what the anxiety is all about. What is it that the mind is so afraid to let go of? Figure out how to fix those pieces of your life and set yourself up to not have so many worries.
In fact, I even venture to make the argument that forcing yourself to meditate is not healthy. As I said, the mind is quite logical and wants to achieve a balance. It doesn’t need to be forced into “letting go”. It just needs to be listened to and its anxieties to be taken seriously. This chatter that goes through the back of your mind is legitimate. Listen to it and give it a chance, don’t try to squash it or suppress it. Your mind is smarter than that. Sure, there are some ill-logical thoughts that arise from primal instincts and poorly-configured amygdalae, but if given the chance to surface, thoughts are surprisingly logical and your intuition is generally rooted in reality.