Zen and the Art of Depression

The dark mood I described in my most recent post lasted through the week. On the weekend, I awoke both days still weighed down by a mysterious heaviness that made it hard to think clearly. But both days, this leaden cloud lifted in the afternoon, something it hadn’t done earlier in the week.

Then on Monday, and again today, I was okay again. I woke up and could breathe. My thoughts slowed down and became clearer. Phew, survived another cycle.

I’ve had a lot of these cycles, and lately they seem to come and go faster than they used to. I’ve always compared it to a light switch flipping on or off, something out of my control. But I wonder. Is there something I do that either promotes or could interrupt the cycle?

I’ve been reading The Depression Book by Cheri Huber, a Zen Buddhist teacher. She argues that depression is something we do to ourselves. (I know, indignation was my first reaction too. I don’t do depression to myself! I don’t want this! You aren’t a psychologist; what do you know anyway?)

But instead of flinging the book across the room, I kept reading, I suppose because I already liked what she said about embracing yourself and your depression compassionately. So I learned that (in her view, at least), depression always follows the same pattern:

We feel some sensation.

We think or believe something about that sensation.

We attach emotions to it.

We repeat a conditioned behavior.

So, for example, I feel the heaviness on my chest and notice that my thinking has become faster but more chaotic; also “I’m so bad” thoughts seem to pop up out of nowhere.

This sets off a set of thoughts and beliefs I have learned over time: I’m sliding into another depressive cycle again. This is going to mean a week or more of misery. This keeps happening over and over, and it’s probably going to happen my entire life.

Those beliefs link to an emotional reaction. Oh no! I don’t like this. I’m afraid it will never stop. I’m afraid depression is making me waste my life.

And that moves me into a conditioned response behavior, usually some version of avoidance or escape, she says. For example, I quit my job (not clear though that it was escapism rather than a healthy departure from an unhealthy work environment). Or I want a drink–or in my case, more likely I want to burn myself. Or I think about suicide, imagining it as a relief. Or I stay in bed all day.

She says we do this sequence with everything, not just depression. We have sensations that don’t vary, we connect them to thoughts and beliefs that don’t vary, which prompt emotional reactions that don’t vary, triggering impulses to behave a certain way.

Huber doesn’t say this is BAD. (After all, ,she’s all about No Judgment.) Instead, she says, pay attention. Pay attention, get in the present moment, and become an authority on your own depression. Get all the information you can, and decide for yourself what helps you.

I could say “Okay, right, I have been in therapy for maybe 13 or 14 years, off and on. I have read about depression and treatments. I take meds, blah blah blah, I do what you suggest and so what? Still depressed.”

But then I think: what about all the things I know about and don’t do? I exercise sometimes, but lately not much. I eat very healthy food some of the time, and some of the time I don’t care. I meditate regularly but tend to stop when I feel the worst. I know yoga helps me, but I haven’t been able to establish a regular schedule of going to classes, even though my schedule is now quite flexible. I am kinder to myself than I used to be, but I heard that message for many, many years before it started to sink in.

I’m thinking now that I could do more for myself. This is not to scold myself for previous behavior. I did what I could manage then. Furthermore, I didn’t use to be able to identify sensations in my body or examine my own thoughts without judgment, skills which have developed a lot this year. So maybe it was impossible to do more earlier, maybe not; I can’t know what an alternative past might have looked like for me.

But here in the present, I can wonder if it’s possible to interrupt the sensation – thought/belief – emotion – impulse to act sequence. Maybe I can identify the sensations and approach them with curiosity and kindness, instead of making assumptions about what will happen next and allowing fear to guide me. It makes some sense that this might help me, so it’s worth experimenting with. After all, it’s not like the same-old, same-old sequence has worked all that well for me, has it?



  1. This very much describes the therapy i am doing right now. Connection of the thoughts to the body and what happens in the body. So if i were to experience the tightness or heaviness of my chest I would be aware first and then I would create imagery that would give me a safe place so that i could breathe freely. Kind of re teaching my body that it can relearn how to not have this chain reaction of thought turning to body reaction. Geez its so complicated i can not really explain it but i think what i am trying to say is i totally understand your post!!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • It IS complicated. One moment I will think, oh yeah, I understand, and then the next moment, I will think, wait, what?!? Does that make sense? But there is something about increasing awareness of our bodies and then just holding that in compassionate awareness. I think that is very powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That whole way of thinking makes sense, but I can see it complicated trying to figure it out. For me I have a depression-fibromyalgia flare- beat my body up-stress- depression cycle and sometimes it’s hard to figure out which came first


    • I wonder if it’s possible for you to start anywhere in the cycle. For example, something might trigger the fibromyalgia, which gets you into the cycle OR something else triggers the depression and you can start from there, etc. So then it might be a question of how to interrupt the cycle. How could you feel depressed and NOT let it move into a flare up for fibromyalgia?

      Last night I had some of the intrusive thoughts and images that sometimes signal to me another round of the “I’m so bad…” repetitive thinking and the heavy emotions. Because I’m still reading the book, I am trying to just pay attention to those images. Where do I feel them? What do I need? I realized I was extra tired because of some contract work I did yesterday. Could the images be related to that? I don’t know if this will make a difference in my experience or not, but I want to play with this idea of paying attention to and accepting what is there instead of resisting it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love that you are reading Cheri Huber, and sharing on here. I have also lately been contemplating how my thoughts impact my emotions and suffering. The more I pay attention, the more I do see how my thoughts and attachment to what they say, create an immense amount of suffering and stuckness and repetition for me. Those thoughts are so hard to untangle from.


  4. This is an interesting, although complicated idea. I wonder if this works similar to Bea’s sensorimotor therapy stuff. Like, tracking how thoughts or emotions trigger body stuff and vice versa. I might look for this book. I’m curious.


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