Meditation is arguably as ancient as we are, and it’s a lot less fancy than you might expect. Rather than thinking of it as a spiritual connection to Gaia, God, your own spark of divinity or any collection of higher beings, think of meditation as a therapeutic tool towards better self-regulation, more consistent moods, and many other little benefits. I’ve been meditating on a daily basis for the past few weeks, and I’ve come to realize that it’s incredibly important as a critical form of stress relief in any person’s day. If you’re not practicing some form of meditation, you’re seriously missing out – and in the case of depression, applying your own brand of meditation to your life could come with some surprising changes in mood and thoughts.
But the big question is: how do you meditate? Meditation in its simplest form is self-awareness – think of your thoughts as a giant highway with a million racing cars, and think of meditation as pulling out of one these cars and taking the bird’s eye view. Another way to think of meditation is to picture each thought in a bubble, and to find the space between bubbles. It’s impossible not to think, but by floating between our thoughts we essentially take a break from obsessing or worrying about specific things and see our thoughts from a different perspective. You don’t have to read too much into it, and attributing things like peace and bliss to meditation is really just fluff without substance. Awareness and self-awareness are two separate things, so to meditate, don’t think about going outward, but go inward. Breathing is usually the first step because a.) everyone has to breathe, so it’s an extremely accessible instruction, and b.) it’s rhythmic and eases you into the concentration necessary to successfully meditate.
What is Meditation, and Does it Exist?
It’s a bit hard to take meditation seriously when you consider what it is usually associated with. Anyone who has ever looked for ways to deal with depression online has on more than one occasion run into a series of spirituality blogs, yoga blogs, and content channels focused on stuff like reciting mantras and uniting yourself with the universe or something along those lines.
There is nothing wrong with belief. Religion and spirituality can provide comfort and even help on an emotional and psychological level in trying times. But there is something wrong with passing off a form of belief or a spiritual practice as an adequate substitute for research-backed medicine. Yes, many previously commonly-accepted forms of treatment have been proven wrong and ineffective time and time again. And yes, schools of thought like classic yoga and Japanese Zen Buddhism are centuries if not millennia old, so you can’t argue that they didn’t do their research.
But New Age philosophy is, well, new, and built on woo-woo and quackery. Carefully and diligently cut away at the nonsensical, and you unearth actual wisdom – such as the idea of meditating often, and for a reason. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not entirely new in the West. Prayer, a form of meditation, has been performed for millennia throughout various Western cultures, from Ancient Greece to Lutheran Prussia. More recently, with the rise of secularism, meditation has grown in popularity as a form of self-awareness, a mindfulness technique that works excellently as a form of self-therapy and carries proven cognitive and mood-regulating benefits. Let’s go over applying meditation – and why it’s really not that tough nor time-consuming to integrate into your daily life.
One Person’s Meditation is Another Person’s Chore
At its most basic form, meditation is self-reflection. You sit down and just think. The reason this is such a revolutionary concept for a lot of us is that there really doesn’t seem to be much room or time for the ability to sit in silence and just let the mind do its thing – let alone take the time to properly apply meditation. Silence, the ability to steer clear from the constant droning of the day-to-day stress of life, is exceedingly rare. But in this case, it’s as valuable as solid gold.
So, make room for it – but don’t force one person’s meditation upon yourself. The ascetics of South Asia used incense and chanting to bring themselves into a meditative state, going into deep pondering and self-reflection through the rhythm and vibrations of their own voice, and the distinct aromas of sandalwood, anise, turmeric, and countless other aromatics.
That doesn’t mean you need to build a prayer room and recite a sacred mantra to clear your mind. Find your own way. You don’t necessarily need absolute silence, but you do need focus – if you can somehow drown out the sounds around you and just listen inward, then all the more power to you, but if you struggle with that then consider investing in some high-quality earplugs and humming a little.
If sitting still is something you struggle with, consider “active” meditation. This is present in diverse circles, from yoga culture to traditional Kungfu. The idea is to incorporate movement into your meditation, be it using a treadmill, repeating some form of choreography, or going through a pre-workout stretching ritual.
Alternatively, there are plenty of online guides to meditation – step-by-step audio programs that basically help ease you into meditation in a way that lets you get used to the whole thing, without just asking you to sit there and think about “the space between spaces” for half an hour.
Meditation Isn’t Affirmation
An affirmation is a positive statement about yourself and your situation in life. Affirmations help combat negative thinking, especially when they’re coming from you. While they will probably always sound insincere at first, practicing affirmations can actually help decrease depressive symptoms in many people. Not all people, of course, but it’s always a good idea to try.
Meditation is not affirmation, though. You don’t meditate to look deep inside for things to be happy about, but instead you meditate to examine your thoughts without living inside them. Negative thoughts make us anxious, panicky, and apathetic. But through breathing exercises, deep concentration, and focus, it’s possible to leave those emotions behind and just focus on the bread and butter of the thought itself. It allows you to navigate your thoughts and emotions, and better deal with them. You can seek out positive thoughts to combat the negative ones, but that’s not the same as introducing positivity into your mind through repeated affirmations.
Meditation Isn’t Flow
The flow state is described as what happens to the mind when a person engages in an activity of moderate challenge utilizing a skill they are quite skilled with. Painters, musicians, martial artists and athletes alike often switch into a “flow” state as they work, completely immersed in the experience and separate from their surroundings. Flow succeeds other usual states of mind first encountered when learning a craft, including apathy, initial stages of anxiety and fear of failure, and sense of control over the activity, before finally switching into flow.
Flow can be a delightful experience, but it isn’t the same as meditation. Rather than focusing on the activity so intensely that you lose yourself for a while, meditation involves explicitly going inward to seek out your thoughts and explore them without getting pulled in by any specific thought.
Meditation Isn’t Salvation
Meditation can help you tackle a difficult situation in life by taking on a new perspective. The idea of not being completely immersed in depressive emotions while struggling with thoughts of suicide and anxiety is very far-fetched at first, but like anything, meditation has to be practiced – and when practiced, it can help some people improve by helping them tackle these thoughts in their own mind in a way they never could during their day-to-day.
But it’s not the end-all-be-all of therapies, and it won’t work for every case of depression. Like anything, it’s worth a shot – and even if it does not help out with your depression, it may still have other positive effects worth considering.
Meditation Is Useful
I’ve established that meditation is far from being a mental panacea, but I don’t want to end this article on a note that essential says “don’t rely on meditation for anything, it’s crap”. It’s really not crap at all – but you have to know what to expect, and where it fits into life. For someone with depression, getting out of your own head for a while is an incredibly useful ability, and it’s rarely something anyone is just born with. Like anything, it has to be diligently developed and made into something useful over time.
Start simple, and if necessary, use an audio guide for your first foray into meditation. Don’t go in thinking it’ll make you instantly happier or that it’ll do absolutely nothing for you. Go in without judgment, giving things time to develop. Your goal for the first time should be to go a solid ten minutes without thinking about how dumb this is.
After that, it’s a matter of consistency. Over time, frequent meditation will let you tackle negative thoughts from a better position. While meditation isn’t meant to be an affirmation exercise, regularly practicing mindfulness can be ultimately life-affirming, as long as you’re taking time to focus on the good and argue away the bad.
When faced with a particularly stressful situation, meditation also lets you take the panic and irrationality out of it all and gives you the focus you need to answer what really matters: what’s next? What can you realistically do to make the best of this?